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Master of Arts in Theological Studies, Episcopal Divinity School, 2006 

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the 

requirements for the degree of 


April 2012 

© Copyright by 



Approved By 


hn J^i-u L 

le Reverend Dr. Joan M. Martin, PhD 
William Rankin Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics 


The Reverend Dr. Patrick S. Cheng, PhD 
Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology 

BK Hipsher, "Through the Looking Glass: Identity, Community, and Sacrament in 
Virtual Reality" D.Min. Episcopal Divinity School, 2012. 

Drawing on over three years of ministry in the virtual world of Second Life 
as a case study, this thesis explores the question, "Is online ministry ethical and 
effective for the spiritual development of individuals in the formation of a faith 
community?" We explore why many people are suspicious of the possibility of 
relating to others in virtual reality. Addressing the obvious issues of perceived 
and real anonymity, we consider how virtual relationships are similar and 
different to face-to-face relationships. Discussion of the effectiveness of the 
relationships, worship experience, and spiritual formation in Second Life will 
address what is required for the development of meaningful community. We then 
naturally move to consideration of what makes church meaningful to people, and 
literally what constitutes church. Delving more deeply into what makes church we 
outline how the church goes about carrying out God's mission; becoming a 
community of faith including the importance of worship, proclamation, service, 
and teaching. We consider the implications of pastoral ministry and the formation 
of faith community in Second Life. Finally we will consider where we go from here 
and try to look into the future for what questions and considerations might be 
coming next in virtual space and what implications ministry in virtual reality might 
have for real-life, face-to-face theologies of ministry. 


This thesis is dedicated to the generous and committed faculty of the Episcopal Divinity 
School. These brilliant and talented educators, theologians, ethicists, historians, and 
pastors have mentored me for nearly a decade. Their constant support and encouragement 
have kept me engaged and honest. I will always owe them a debt of gratitude for their 
loving direction and friendship. 

I make particular note of Rev. Dr. Joan Martin and Rev. Dr. Christopher Duraisingh. 
Both were instrumental in helping me think through the theological and ethical concepts 
contained herein. Their willingness to help me wrestle with the material helped clarify 
my own understandings and contextualize my own faith. 

I want to also thank my dear partner, Rabbi Devon A. Lerner, who has made space in our 
life together for me to be absent so that I could attend classes, read many books and 
articles, and write, making it possible for me to finish these studies. Her love and support 
is one of the great gifts of my life. 


Table of Contents 


Chapter 1 Real-Life Relating in Virtual Space 12 

Chapter 2 What Makes Church? 25 

Chapter 3 How the Church Functions to Carry Out God's Mission 52 

Chapter 4 Communion - Mission, Ecclesiology, and Sacrament 57 

Chapter 5 Virtual Lessons for the Real-Life Church 85 

Chapter 6 A Theology of Transformation 99 

Appendix 104 

Bibliography 109 


I am the pastor of a church. My congregation is a bit unconventional. Often my 
flock is small, sometimes less than 10 people. Just as often this small group of people can 
include people from different countries, from many different Christian denominations, 
and often attended by people who do not identify with any particular religious tradition. 
The service happens each Sunday at 2:00pm Pacific Time. The liturgy is comprised of 
music, readings, a reflection almost always prepared and delivered by me, and prayers in 
which everyone present is invited to participate. We greet each other before service and 
enjoy conversation after the service catching up on each other's lives, work, family, and 

In many ways the congregation is much like any other congregation in any church 
or faith community anywhere. But there is one notable difference. My congregation 
does not meet in a church in real life. The people who attend the service I put on each 
week are sitting at their own computer, in their own environment, interacting with me and 
the other people by moving an avatar around a virtual world, in a virtual building having 
real interactions, real spiritual experiences, real relationships. My congregation is called 
Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life. If you are confused just hold that thought and let me 
explain how I got to this point in life exercising my main ministry in a virtual world, 
online, from my computer that often is operating on a wireless card allowing me to run 

the service from my car, from a hotel, or even from a classroom at Episcopal Divinity 
School where my classmates and colleagues can share the experience that I enjoy each 

I was an early adopter of computer technology in the mid 1980's, the very birth of 
personal computers. While the use of computers in my experience was in business 
contexts, it is important to note that my business experience is in the photography 
industry. Images and music combined with text and story captured my imagination from 
the earliest days of color video monitors. The proliferation of consumer video cameras 
pushed that imagination even further and soon computers were capable of processing 
moving images. Technologically advanced video games began to capture the 
imaginations of "baby boomers." From the earliest days of console games in video 
arcades featuring Pacman and Super Mario, computer gaming became a recreational past 
time for many people. While I did not become obsessed with video games I enjoyed 
them from the beginning. 

The attraction from my point was the fascination I felt when I moved a control on 
a console and determined the movement of a character on the screen. The interaction of 
my mind with the character on the screen was my first online experience of interacting 
with a computer screen and relating to an avatar. The Pacman that I controlled battled to 
outwit the character in the game that sought to devour my Pacman. As technology 
evolved, more distinctly human-like characters like Super Mario made the experience 
more engaging. Later, games like Doom and Tomb Raider offered more and more 

realistic and technologically advanced characters that became closely associated with my 
own experience of identity. When computer games began to offer the option of multiple 
players in a single game, human-to-human relationship and interaction was possible 
through the use of a character on a screen that came to be known as an avatar. 

In many of these games the user had choices of the appearance, gender, race, 
body type, clothing and other attributes of the avatar they used in the games. These 
options allowed for a more personalized experience of identity. This ability to choose 
how one's avatar appeared opened the advent of interaction between avatars each 
controlled by human beings. Technology now includes avatars interacting in relationship 
to each other. 

Simultaneous with the evolution of computer gaming technology, email and 
Internet chat gave me the opportunity to maintain relationships that had begun as face-to- 
face friendships. The first instance of this kind of interaction was the experience of using 
the early Internet service called Prodigy to keep in touch with a close friend who spent 
several weeks in Berlin, Germany, doing research. A mutual friend who remained behind 
with me in Nashville was also on Prodigy. We kept almost daily contact with our friend 
in Germany by sending email messages back and forth. 

This experience proved to me that typing into a computer to create a message that 
could be sent in a very short time could keep my friends and me up to date with each 
others' lives on a daily basis. It was clear to me and to my friends that this mode of 
communication was both a way to maintain an existing relationship and a vehicle to 

actually enhance and move a relationship forward. Years later, I realized that this type of 
online interaction had actually advanced the intimacy of the friendship between the three 
of us. The combination of nearly daily interaction and the opportunity to communicate in 
written form was clearly a different kind of interaction than we had previously enjoyed in 
face-to-face or even telephone conversations. While the immediate response of real time 
interaction was sacrificed, there was something intangibly intimate about communication 
in written language. 

As the years went by I began to make friends online with people whom I had not 
met in person. As a traveling sales person I used dialup connections on a laptop 
computer as a means to "visit" with people online in the evenings by using chat rooms on 
what was known then as the IRC, Internet Relay Chat. In one of these chat rooms I 
formed deep friendships with women from all over the world, relationships that have 
passed the test of time. One couple I met in those days have been friends for 14 years, 
one partner of the couple has died. Gratefully many visits back and forth from England to 
the US and Canada were shared and deep friendships were formed and sustained over 
many years right through to the end of life for one. 

Fast forward to 2003 when I began my theological education by working toward a 
Master's degree in theology from Episcopal Divinity School. In the years between 2003 
and 2006, a voice and video service called Skype appeared on the scene. This free 
service allowed participants to move beyond voice chat in real time, beyond telephone 
conversations, all the way to real-time voice and video interaction. I quickly realized the 

implications of this new technology for sharing information, making and maintaining 
friendships and business relationships, and began to imagine possibilities for educational 
opportunities and increased access to therapeutic and pastoral resources. 

As the program progressed and I selected my thesis project for the Master's 
program, the focus began to settle on questions about the implications for theological 
education in online environments My thesis project included a research project that 
analyzed online classes taught in different contexts by different professors. The project 
indicated that the missing link for theological education in online environments centered 
on the need for more immediate interaction than discussion boards could provide and the 
need for students to be constantly reminded that the people to whom they address their 
comments are not faceless names that read their discussion board posts at different times 
but rather are real people with real feelings, real reactions, real emotions. 

Ironically, my thesis defense was my very first experience of bringing real-time 
voice and video interaction between a group of people in one place and someone else in a 
different geographic location. Gathered in a room at EDS were the Academic Dean, my 
advisor, a student reader for my thesis project, and myself. My second faculty reader was 
in her office in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, at Brock University. I connected my 
computer to a television set in the classroom, attached the video and audio outputs and 
invited Dr. Maureen Connolly to join us using Skype bringing her video image and voice 
into the room. She was able to see all of us sitting in the room and hear us speaking. 
Those gathered at EDS were able to see and hear Maureen. For all practical purposes she 

was in the room with us, fully present, able to interact and participate in every facet of the 
meeting, except the hugs that followed my positive report from the committee. 

It became clear that voice and video interaction in real time had the potential to 
overcome all the hierarchies and structures of anonymity that inhibited student and 
professor's interactions when using only discussion board based vehicles like Blackboard 
as the online component. Episcopal Divinity School stepped up to the plate in 2007 and 
invited their first group of Master's students to enter a program that allowed them to 
attend face-to-face classes during two short two-week sessions on campus in Cambridge, 
Massachusetts, and allowed for whole classes to meet in synchronous, real-time classes 
held online with voice and video interaction between multiple attendees. The software 
that made this possible is called Adobe Connect. 

I have experienced several classes in various subjects getting to know my 
classmates during virtual face-to-face classes that allow the entire class and professor to 
see each other and hear each other's voices. We engage in a dialogical pedagogical model 
that is very much like sitting in a classroom together. I find these classes completely 
satisfactory and more importantly, I am able to attend classes that I would otherwise be 
unable to attend in face-to-face classes due to my complex life obligations. Some of my 
classmates are able to pursue their seminary education and vocational formation and 
discernment as a result of the accessibility that online classes afford them while 
remaining in their jobs, in their homes, in their communities; still able to work toward 

degrees in theology. This access to theological education has the potential to allow them 
to follow their call to ministry. 

After graduation from the Masters in Theological Studies in 2006, another year's 
study at EDS, and my ordination in Metropolitan Community Churches in 2007, 1 began 
to think about and explore ways that worship experiences, spiritual formation, and 
pastoral interactions could be exercised in online contexts. During a chance encounter on 
a trip to Europe, ironically with a woman in England whom I met in those early days of 
Internet Relay Chat, I was introduced to the virtual world of Second Life. 

It is not easy to describe this virtual world if one has not experienced it. Imagine 
a very graphically advanced program that looks very much like a sophisticated and 
technologically complex video game. The difference between Second Life and a video 
game is distinct. In a video game the characters actions are programed by the game. 
Mathematical algorithms built into the programing define how the characters in the game 
respond to the player and what the character will do next in an interaction. In Second Life 
nearly every entity with which one interacts has an actual human being driving it. An 
avatar that each person creates and modifies, with physical attributes like hair and skin 
color, gender and clothing, represents people in this virtual world. There are businesses, 
homes, and recreational activities like fishing, sailing, and games. There are churches, 
mosques, synagogues, Shinto and Buddhist temples, and more. Practically every 
imaginable faith tradition is represented. 

I could see the need for a theologically progressive church. Although two other 
Christian ministries existed in Second Life at that time, there was still a need for a gay, 
lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) positive ministry in the Metropolitan 
Community Church. 

Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is a collaborative project between the pastors 
of Sunshine Cathedral and myself. Sunshine Cathedral is a Metropolitan Community 
Church (MCC) affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, in Ft. Lauderdale, 
Florida. Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins and Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin have provided the support 
and liturgical framework for the services that make Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life 
continue to happen each week. Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is not just an online 
community. It is intentionally connected to a real-life church with a real-life 
congregation. The readings, prayers and other portions of the liturgy are the same that 
face-to-face congregations enjoy on site in Ft. Lauderdale. Sunshine Cathedral in Second 
Life is a multi-site location of the real-life Sunshine Cathedral in Ft. Lauderdale. 

As this ministry developed over more than three years, some new challenges 
began to surface that required significant theological thought and reflection. Pastoral 
issues that come up in Second Life are often similar to issues faced by any pastor of any 
real-life congregation. Some significant and specific differences are apparent as well. 
Very often questions of sacramental participation in various rituals like weddings and 
funerals arise and must be dealt with in an honest and forthright way. As I began to look 
for resources that would help me consider the theological implications involved in these 


circumstances, I quickly found a severe lack of published information addressing pastoral 
issues in online ministry. This project is a first step in addressing some of those areas. 
While the limitations and scope of this project make it impossible to exhaustively address 
even the most limited area, my hope is that this project might open the door for others to 
continue to do ministry in online formats, particularly in Second Life, and find ways to 
make that experience more beneficial both for the participants and the ministers who 
work in that environment. 

This is the central question that this project addresses: "Is online ministry ethical 
and effective for the spiritual development of individuals in the formation of a faith 
community?" This thesis will answer this question using Sunshine Cathedral in Second 
Life as a case study. 

First we will need to look at the reality that many people are suspicious and 
distrust the idea of having any kind of meaningful relationship using computers and the 
Internet as the vehicle for communication. We will challenge many of the assumptions 
that people often have about interactions in online environments. First and foremost we 
will challenge the assumption that church in Second Life is a substitute for real-life face- 
to-face faith community experience. 

Discussion of the effectiveness of the relationships, worship experience, and 
spiritual formation in Second Life will address what is required for the development of 
meaningful community. The relational matrix that is required for face-to-face formation 

of community will be interrogated to discern whether the same kinds of elements are 
necessary and what, if any, differences exist in real-life and Second Life experience. 

From the structure of relational dynamics we will naturally move to consideration 
of what makes church meaningful to people, and literally what constitutes church. Using 
the four marks of the church: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, we will look at 
whether the church in Second Life meets these tests. While we recognize that these marks 
of the church as articulated in the Nicene Creed do not represent the diversity of 
perspectives in Calvinist and other traditions world wide, we use these marks as an 
organizing principle to compare and contrast the church in Second Life with the church in 
real life. In no way do we intend to imply that these marks are the absolute definition of 
what it means to be church in the world. Rather we use these marks as lens through 
which we might observe and pull into focus some of the similarities and some of the 
differences that exist between Second Life and real life. 

We will move on to a discussion of how the church goes about carrying out God's 
mission; becoming a community of faith including the importance of worship, 
proclamation, service, and teaching. We will examine the central ritual of liturgical 
Christian practice, Holy Communion or Eucharist. Considering in some detail what the 
Eucharist is and how it functions in an incarnational theology, we will deal as frankly as 
possible with issues related to consideration of sharing Holy Communion in virtual space. 
We will carefully consider the possibility of Holy Communion in Second Life and 
address the challenges of proximity balanced with the extraordinary opportunity it might 


afford those who otherwise have no opportunity to participate in the sacrament. In 
addition, we will consider the role and function the practice of Holy Communion in 
Second Life might have as a motivation to assist people in moving into their own face-to- 
face faith communities. 

When we have addressed the thesis question and considered the ethical 
implications of pastoral ministry and the formation of faith community in Second Life, 
we will move on to the additional questions that arise from our inquiry. We will see how 
ministry in Second Life gives us great freedom to explore liturgy and architecture in ways 
that are sometimes seemingly impossible in real life. Certainly we will address the radical 
welcome that is possible from the vantage point of a ministry in Second Life. Finally we 
will consider where we go from here and try to look into the future for what questions 
and considerations might be coming next in virtual space. 

Ultimately we do not expect to come to neat conclusions with easy answers and 
formulas for pastoral care and ministry. What we hope to do is begin to ask the questions 
that will require our careful, prayerful, ethical, spiritual, theological consideration as 
virtual environments, and particularly the virtual world of Second life, continue to 
evolve. This is an exciting, challenging, and sometimes painfully uncomfortable topic. 
With approximately 75,000 users online at any given moment in Second Life, we need to 
think theologically about what is going on here and how the message of the good news of 
the gospel can be advanced in Second Life and other online environments. 


The virtual world of Second Life is based on gaming technology with advanced 
graphics, realistic avatar movements, implications for expressing emotions, and more. 
Some people actually do play games in Second Life using their avatars. But ministry in 
Second Life is anything but a game. It is real-life interactions between real-life people. 
Many of the things we can learn about what it means to be church and what constitutes 
identity in a faith community can be used in real-life face-to-face contexts as well as in 
online virtual ministry. 

After all, when Paul wrote letters to the newly formed churches in the early days 
of Christianity he was "virtually" interacting with these congregations. His ideas, his 
words, his leadership and teaching were carried out to places he could not possibly have 
traveled to himself. Why then should we not consider the technological advances that 
will allow us to minister to people in remote locations who either cannot or will not come 
to a real-life face-to-face community? If we are serious about evangelism and the call to 
spread the good news of God's love in the gospel message, we can do no other. 


Chapter 1 Real-Life Relating in Virtual Space 

Technology in general has the capacity to do great good or unspeakable evil. 
Similar kinds of robotics guide tiny surgical instruments to perform life giving 
procedures and deliver cluster bombs that kill and maim thousands in a single event. 
Computer and Internet technology make our lives both infinitely more enjoyable yet 
often hold us hostage to the world of endless email and instant communication. Arguably 
the technology that affects our daily lives most in our 21 st century "real" worlds is the 
computer and other electronic devices that allow us to remain connected to online 
environments. These devices combined with wide bandwidth high speed Internet access 
that allow us to "connect" with hundreds and even thousands of people each day have 
become central to life in the modern world. Virtual or online interactions have, in the 
past, been considered less than authentic. Some have even considered these interactions 
to be dangerous. 

As we use our computers, iPads, smart phones, Kindles, and other electronic 
devices that connect to the Internet each day, we are opening ourselves to the possibility 
that our interactions will be the object of surveillance by others who interrupt the signal 
and intercept the information. We come face-to-face with this reality each time we send 


an email message or text message, each time we place a cell or VoIP 1 telephone call, each 
time we download a book or make a purchase online. The reality that our service 
providers, equipment manufacturers, and other large corporations with which we interact 
can and do gather information on our movement, habits, purchasing patterns, and more is 
part of our media driven life. The fact is that anytime we use any technology or even 
make a purchase on a credit card we leave ourselves open to privacy violations. 2 

Most of us have heard of persons who have been lured to real-life meetings after 
online interactions, only to find that the online persona did not match the face-to-face 
reality. We've heard the warnings to our children and even to adults to beware 
interactions in cyberspace, warnings that are not without merit. 

As a result, many people decry any sort of online interaction as inauthentic 
because it lacks the physical reality of being in the same space. Yet everyday brings more 
news of ways people are finding to connect, communicate, and relate to one another 
online. More and more people are using online sources to find their intimate sexual or life 
partners. 3 More colleges and universities are offering online learning opportunities, often 

1 Abbreviation for "voice over Internet protocol." This is a technology that allows 
telephone calls to be made utilizing the Internet rather than conventional telephone 
company wires. 

Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading On the Electronic 
Frontier, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000), 299-300. 

3, "Stay Up to Date: Introducing the Official Blog," 
blog/ (accessed February 17, 2012). 


with entire degree programs available through online interaction and class participation. 
For instance at this writing the online resource Guide to Online Schools lists 195 
accredited institutions offering 6234 degree programs. 4 An October 2010 article in the 
New Yorker magazine chronicles the way social action organization has changed with the 
proliferation of Facebook and Twitter. 5 The political landscape across the world is 
changing due in large part to the instantaneous modes of communications that can be 
established between thousands of people using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a 
variety of other mass media options now available on the Internet. 

No longer is the ability to reach thousands of people with a single message 
restricted to television, magazine, or newspaper owners. Online communications played a 
crucial roll in the revolutions in Egypt, Lybia, and other places during what has become 
known as the "Arab Spring" in 201 1. These online conduits of mass communication 
precipitated governments using a virtual space "kill switch" to literally shut off people's 
ability to communicate using virtual media. 6 This reaction is evidence of the immense 

4 SR Education Group, "Guide to Online Schools," (accessed February 17, 2012). 

5 Malcolm Gladwell, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted," 
The New Yorker, 1 0/1 0/04/1 1 004fa_fact_gladwell (accessed 
February 26, 2012). 

6 Michael Teague, "New Media and the Arab Spring," Al Jadid Magazine, , (accessed February 18, 


power online communication and interaction has to affect change in the world. "The 
movements throughout the Arab world appeared to have imbued social media with an 
irrevocable sense of legitimacy as a tool for fomenting change," writes Raymond 
Schillinger on Huff Post World in September 201 1. 7 In addition, as people become more 
adept at using media of all kinds to communicate and effect social change they become 
more aware of how media can be used to manipulate and spread misinformation. People 
who learn about the power of video media, for instance, by making their own videos, 
learn that "pictures can lie" 8 when pressed into service to spread a particular ideology or 

Clearly the vast power of the Internet and our ability to connect with one another 
can be used for both good and ill. Because some people choose to use these 
communication and relational opportunities for evil intent, the media and the underlying 
technology is not itself inherently evil. Like many forms of relating in life, including 
religious community and intimate relationships, we can suffer great harm or 
immeasurable satisfaction from online interactions. The fact that some people misuse 
these powerful ways of relating and communicating should not hinder our search to find 
ways to carry the Good News of God's love to people in the context of virtual church. 

7 Raymond Schillinger, "Social Media and the Arab Spring: What Have We 
Learned?" Huffington Post World, 
schillinger/arab-spring-social-media_b_970 1 65 .html , (accessed February 18, 2012). 

Mary E. Hess, Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We 
Can't Leave Behind (Lanham, Md.: Sheed & Ward, 2005), 81. 


Another critique often heard about online interactions is that the quality of 
relating in these environments is inherently flawed simply on the basis that people do not 
reside in the same physical space. To be sure, visual cues and physical attributes often are 
considered when relating to others in face-to-face contexts. The sound of a person's voice 
and their scent can inform how we interact with people when we are in the same physical 
space. As technology moves forward with increasingly intricate avenues for connection 
and the introduction of more and better ways to relate using video conferencing 
technology, we are able to move closer and closer to the experience of being in the same 
physical space with others by virtual means. 

Let us take a moment here to acknowledge that the absence of someone's physical 
appearance might actually serve to keep us more open minded about constructing the 
identity of the person to whom and with whom we are relating. Judgments of a person's 
character, intention, intellect, and more can often be affected by our evaluation of their 
physicality in face-to-face interactions. For instance people who are overweight are often 
perceived as lazy based upon their physical appearance alone. A study at Yale University 
indicated that the assumptions made about healthcare professionals regarding people who 
are overweight might negatively affect the quality of care they receive. 9 When we see a 
person in old clothes, perhaps needing a haircut and sitting on a park bench, we have a 
very different attitude than when we see the same person dressed and groomed well 

9 Rebecca M. Puhl, Marlene B. Schwartz, and Kelly D. Brownell, "Impact of 
Perceived Consensus On Stereotypes About Obese People: A New Approach For 
Reducing Bias," Health Psychology 24, no. 5 (September 2005): 517-25. 


sitting on the same park bench. In this way online interactions can actually open our 
attitudes to relating in ways that might otherwise have been inhibited. 

Another objection to discussions of meaningful relating, and particularly virtual 
church experiences, is an underlying assumption that these forms of relating are a 
substitute for face-to-face relationships. While some people do, no doubt, use online 
relationships as a substitute for and even a shield against having real-life face-to-face 
relationships, this is not the norm. Facebook, as an example, has allowed people who 
were once in close physical proximity to one another to continue to enjoy a day-to-day 
relationship, sharing details of their lives that serve to maintain a connection and 
closeness even though they may be separated by huge distances, multiple time zones, or 
simply the forward march of time. High school and college friends, as well as extended 
family members, can now enjoy reading about the everyday minutia in the lives of their 
loved ones. This ability to enter a "virtual community" where small details of daily life 
can be shared can serve to enhance keeping in touch and increase the probability of 
having a face-to-face encounter that might not otherwise have been possible or desirable 
without mutual participation on Facebook. 

Streaming live and archived services on the Internet are not so different from 
television or radio broadcasts that are still commonly produced each day. These one-way 
communication services feature video and audio recordings of real-life church services 
giving folks access to observing the service. Some even provide service leaflets and song 
lyrics that allow a person in front of their computer to participate fully. This kind of 


participation in the service is still not an interactive relationship. While I may be singing 
along and voicing my responses, the real people in the streaming service are not aware of 
my presence in an individual sense nor can they interact with me personally. 

In the virtual world of Second Life, an avatar represents each real-life person. 
Each person has the power to control how that avatar appears giving people the 
opportunity to mask or enhance their physical attributes. Avatars communicate by means 
of text chat or actual voice audio of the person animating the avatar. They walk into the 
physical church, pick up a service leaflet notecard, as one might pick up a physical paper 
service leaflet upon entering a real-life church, and follow along with the ability to 
respond in real time. 

Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life features a liturgy that closely mirrors the 
liturgy conducted in the real-life Sunshine Cathedral on any given Sunday in Fort 
Lauderdale, Florida. It is complete with music, readings of sacred texts, and a short 
reflection on the texts delivered by the pastor of the flock gathered there. Perhaps most 
importantly, the service affords an opportunity for each member to share prayer requests 
and thanksgivings with all of the others gathered there. This happens in real time with 
real people typing into the text chat sharing their burdens, fears, hopes, and dreams. After 
service folks gather in the courtyard outside the church to chat and catch up with each 
other. We sometimes discuss the themes of the day and often continue to share our lives 
with each other in the form of encouragement and celebration of things that are 
happening in our real lives. 


Some of the people who come to church at Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life 
have not been to a real-life church in decades. Some are still suffering from various forms 
of spiritual abuse visited upon them by face-to-face faith communities because of their 
gender identity or sexual orientation. The church has hurt these lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, 
and transgender real people. They need a place to heal and dip their toe into the water 
again before they can muster the courage to walk into a real-life church and risk the awful 
rejection and hatred that some have experienced. 

Some people who attend church at Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life are 
exploring new theological possibilities and have no option for progressive theological 
worship in their own face-to-face contexts. They may live in rural areas where the only 
churches for miles around are traditional and conservative in their theology. In these 
contexts persons do not have a way to explore theological viewpoints like inclusive 
language for God or a theology of love and reconciliation instead of a theology of 
sacrificial atonement to offset the doctrine of original sin. 

Others are mobility challenged and unable to physically go out to attend a face-to- 
face church. Age or physical impairment can limit a person's ability to travel to face-to- 
face services. Still others are not yet ready to claim their gender identity and attend 
services as a female avatar when their real-life gender performance is male or vise versa. 
Some people who attend are themselves clergy who rarely have an opportunity for 
communal worship that they are not leading. All of the people who gather together 
experience the reality of worshiping, praying, reading, and reflecting together each week. 


They simply do it using the digital body of an avatar rather than gathering with others in 
physical proximity. 

Social scientists are just beginning to explore how interacting in Second Life 
gives people an opportunity to learn by trying on different identities, playing different 
characters, interacting in open ended environments. 10 It stands to reason that "practicing" 
going to church might play an important role in motivating people to desire to be in face- 
to-face relationships in real-life faith communities. The point of being in real-life faith 
community is to share each other's lives and experiences. This is what human 
relationship is all about. Linden Labs is the entity that created, maintains, and constantly 
innovates to make Second Life more and more realistic and enjoyable for human 
interaction. Here is what they say about their mission: "Linden Lab's mission is to create 
a revolutionary new form of shared online experiences known as Second Life." 11 Sharing 
real-life emotions and experiences in a virtual context is really what Second Life is all 

The fact remains that while an avatar hugging another avatar is a pleasant 
sensation that comes with a certain level of a feeling of intimacy, real-life human 
interactions are far superior to avatar intimacy. Lest we be misunderstood, we want to be 
very clear that any and all virtual means of relating are in some ways less desirable than 

Thomas M. Malaby, Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life 
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 96. 

11 Linden Lab, "About Second Life," http ://lindenlab .com/about , (accessed 
February 26, 2012). 


real-life face-to-face interaction. Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life may provide an 
experience that is an adjunct to real-life relationships for those who have no other option 
to worship either in the long or short term. However, the hope is that the church in 
Second Life would provide a short-term alternative to face-to-face church attendance 
when other options are not available. Church in Second Life also offers those who are 
afraid or skeptical to "practice" being back in a faith community. The hope is that this 
experience will make them more likely to seek out a real-life church experience. 

It would, however, be a mistake to assume that church in Second Life or any 
virtual mediated form of worship is the same as attending or participating in worship or 
faith community life in real-life or face-to-face environments. Pedagogical 
considerations must include a shorter attention span by the participants and the 
opportunity to be multi-tasking during the service. That is not to say that people do not 
text, email, or check Facebook and Twitter during real-life services. In Second Life 
one's avatar can be seated in the building looking as though it's paying attention while 
one interacts with various other points of contact on the Internet without the slightest 
inkling that the person's attention is not fully there. It is important to keep things 
interesting and keep the participants engaged. Shorter segments, slightly accelerated 
speech patterns, and the use of contemporary recorded music often augmented by the 
addition of text lyrics can keep people engaged in the service. 

A common view of online interactions, particularly interactions mediated by 
avatars, as is the case in Second Life, is that they are not "real." Some argue that since 


one can create an avatar that is any gender, age, race, and perceived socio-economic class 
that one chooses, we never really know with whom we are dealing. We concede that this 
is true. And we would also point out that people can appear to be very different from their 
true selves in as well. The truth is, if someone intends to be dishonest about how they are 
in Second Life, they likely act in similar ways in real life. While we may have the 
perception that we know our fellow church members well, unless we are close friends 
with them spending significant amounts of time with them, we often know little more 
about our real-life fellow church members than we know about our Second Life avatar 
church members. 

What is important is to understand a phenomenon that can and does occur in 
online and real-life relationships. When we do not have information we often "fill in the 
blanks" with our own preferred version of reality. If we know someone in real life, for 
instance, and we have no knowledge of their spouse or children we are apt to make 
certain assumptions about the missing pieces filling those in with our own ideas. This 
happens even to a greater extent in online relationships. It's very important to ask 
questions and leave open information that we do not have in order to guard against 
making the kinds of assumptions that "fill in the blanks." 

Another assumption that is often made regarding church in Second Life is that 
sacraments are not applicable. We will discuss sacramental theologies and how they may 
be applicable later in depth. Making a blanket assumption that sacramental theology is 
out of the question in Second Life would be an error. Before we make rash judgments 


and generalizations about what is and is not possible for sacraments in Second Life we 
need to look closely not only at what sacraments are but what they represent and how 
they function in our lives. When I received the ashes of Ash Wednesday on the forehead 
of my avatar last year in a morning service, it was a very meaningful experience. As I 
went about my real-life day meeting people with the black mark of palm ashes on their 
foreheads, I felt that I, too, was part of this yearly ritual that begins the pilgrimage of 
Lent. The fact that the ashes were not on my real-life forehead but rather on the forehead 
of my avatar in Second Life made the experience no less real or meaningful to me. 
Before we discount sacramental theology across the board, we will consider how or under 
what circumstances sacraments might come into play in a church in Second Life. 

What is most important to remember when relating to and analyzing relationships 
in any kind of virtual context, including Second Life, is that real-life, flesh and blood 
people are present in conversation, in worship, in prayer, and in spirit. Issues concerning 
trust, conflict, and misunderstandings will occur. It is vital that we realize that real people 
are involved. Real feelings can be hurt. Real spiritual growth can occur. Real community 
can be formed. 

This thesis project will deal directly with what it means to be church in Second 
Life. Some issues will be very similar to issues that arise in real-life face-to-face faith 
communities. Other issues will need to be handled with an understanding that Second 
Life affords us some interesting benefits and provides special challenges so that 
everything does not translate directly from real life to Second Life. 


First we will need to look closely at what "church" really is and what makes 
Second Life church. In the next chapter we will consider what it takes to be a real 
Christian community using what is referred to as the "marks of the Church" to look 
closely at whether church in Second Life really is church. 


Chapter 2 What Makes Church? 

As we begin to look at church in virtual space the first question we must address 
is this: what makes church. . . church? We know that it is certainly more than a building 
with a steeple or a bell tower. We know that it is more than a group of people who meet 
once a week for worship. We have even come to understand that church is more than a 
hierarchical structure that supports a particular denomination. Let us then move beyond 
an apophatic view of what church is not and look at some ways we recognize "church." 

Perhaps the image that most Christians have of what church is revolves around 
the worship service itself and the feeling of community that forms around this act. Many 
people come to church on Sunday to feel a part of something, to find community. To be 
sure, the ritual gathering of people together is part of what makes community. Some of 
the things we do when we attend church also give us the feeling of community. We chat 
with friends, we meet new people, and we greet each other with a handshake or an 
embrace. Often we share in theological conversation in Christian education contexts and 
we share our prayers, our needs and our fears. We work together, generally cooperate, 
compromise and sometimes agree to disagree to keep the community of faith together, 
the community we call church. 

What we want to consider here is a deeper understanding of community, 
something beyond the club mentality that allows us to go to church on Sunday morning 
and then go home to our work throughout the following week without much thought or 


daily activity formed by our participation in the community we all church. As a template 
we will consider what Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas referred to as a "community of 
character." While Hauerwas' vision is by no means a comprehensive view of what the 
church is, his general concept that the church "has social significance. . . as a distinct 
society with an integrity peculiar to itself is a lens through which we can view the 
church in real-life face-to-face interaction and compare the church in Second Life. 

If we are to take seriously Hauerwas' assertion that ". . . the most important social 
task of Christians is to be nothing less than a community capable of forming people with 
virtues sufficient to witness to God's truth in the world. . . [and] the task of the church. . . is 
to become a polity that has the character necessary to survive as a truthful society," 12 then 
we must look at how personhood itself is developed. In order to evaluate whether the 
church can or is forming persons of character, we must first look at how persons are 

If forming virtue in the individual is the goal of a community of character, then 
the enterprise quickly becomes a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" endeavor. So 
we must address a question, what does it mean to be virtuous or to have character? 
Taking as fact Haurwas' assertion that ". . . .[a]n ethic of virtue centers on the claim that an 
agent's being is prior to doing," 13 we arrive at an immediate understanding of the 

Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive 
Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 3. 

13 Ibid, 113. 


importance of the church in the formation of individual character and as a model for other 
communities of character. If a person's character determines their ability to view the 
world in such a way as to make decisions about what actions to take, or not take, then we 
must take seriously the work of the formation of a person. We can hardly fault people for 
making poor decisions or taking no action in matters of injustice if these very same 
people have no option for accessing a community of character within which their own 
character can be developed and formed. 

Here is where the church begins the dialogue and interaction with the world. 
Hauerwas contends that it is the role of the church to be active in the process of infusing 
character or virtue into a world that does not, in and of itself, possess the capacity to 
become virtuous. Hauerwas says that Christian "symbols" and "myths" have a particular 
function within the larger society and these inform how we are to act in relation to one 
another. 1 

How these symbols and myths are communicated is through the Christian 
narrative, the telling and retelling of the Christian story. That story or narrative is 
communicated in three very distinct ways using what the Anglican tradition calls 
"scripture, tradition, and reason." In a face-to-face "real" world context the church 
accomplishes the transmission and teaching of the Christian story using all three vehicles 
as means for telling the story in various ways. 

14 Ibid, 2. 


The reading of scripture in services, preaching, and teaching based on those 
sacred texts is a way to take up some of the particular details of the narrative and deal 
with them. In no way do I mean to exclude the use of other sacred texts beyond the 
Hebrew and Christian testaments found in what Christians refer to as the Bible. I simply 
want to call attention to the fact that the written textual version of our story is contained 
therein. So it is important that these scriptural texts be used as a pivotal basis upon which 
preaching and teaching within the context of the church occurs. This is accomplished in 
conventional face-to-face contexts by having the text read, followed by some form of 
interpretation or commentary upon that reading to give background from within the text, 
to provide historical context if possible, and then to make some connections to our daily 
life in a post-modern 21 st century world. 

The traditions of the church also function to transmit the narrative. These 

traditions must be viewed with a critical eye constantly evaluating the efficacy of the 

inherited forms of the traditions to transmit the Christian narrative. Marvin Ellison 

speaks pointedly to this issue when he says, 

For progressive people of faith and good will, the task can never be to transmit an 
inherited moral or religious tradition uncritically, but rather to engage in open- 
ended ethical discernment in or to critique teachings and patterns of practice as 
needed, as well as transform the tradition in more life-enhancing directions. 15 

Marvin Ellison, Same-Sex Marriage? : A Christian Ethical Analysis 
(Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2004), 140. 


One major critique we have of many face-to-face church experiences is what Professor 
Rick McCall, formerly of Episcopal Divinity School, used to refer to as the principle that 
"architecture always wins." In other words, how we order the worship space itself says 
something about the story we are transmitting. If the leader of a service stands high on an 
altar above and away from everyone else sitting in rows in the pews, does that not give a 
clear image of hierarchy, power over, and God as something outside us, beyond us, rather 
than transmitting the story of the incarnate God here with us in the struggle? 

Additionally we must look closely at the language of prayer books and hymns for 
they, too, transmit information about our common Christian narrative for better or worse. 
How often have we witnessed progressive pastors preaching liberation theology from a 
pulpit Sunday after Sunday followed by atonement theology encapsulated in hymns 
chosen with an uncritical eye, and all of this performed in a clearly hierarchical and often 
overtly patriarchal setting with pews in rows, little congregational participation, and the 
leader set apart and elevated both in stature and costume, not as servant or pastor, but as 
priest and ruler. Often there is no space made for individuals to share their own prayers 
and concerns whether in the form of supplication or thanksgiving with the community. 
By excluding this form of interaction there can be little opportunity for members of the 
community to collectively relate to the commonality of their own stories one with another 
and the commonality of their own story with the overall narrative of the Christian 


If the narrative we are attempting to transmit in this process of character 
formation is to have any lasting effect on individual people, it must engage the story from 
within their own personal story. Put another way, they must be led to or given options in 
the preaching, teaching, singing, prayers, and even in the layout of the worship space to 
see a community that is different and distinct, even counter-cultural to the world. In so 
doing they can begin to translate the Christian narrative in a way that informs how they 
move as part of the community, both in and outside the church. Hauerwas puts a very 
fine point on this issue of inviting the members of the community to use their own 
reason, intellect, and experience in the process of formation as a necessity so that the 
church can ". . .become a polity that has the character necessary to survive as a truthful 
society." 16 

The church in face-to-face contexts has the opportunity, whether it makes good or 
poor use of it, to transmit the narrative of the Christian story in scripture, tradition, and 
reason. Even though architecture and repeating patterns of worship styles or patriarchal 
language in scripture, hymns and prayer book forms may challenge us, we do have the 
option to work against these forces. We can become more concious of the messages that 
these less obvious parts of church transmit, even "re-forming" the words to reflect 
inclusive language. 

In addition, we can provide opportunities for education outside worship 
environments to reinforce the stories that assist us in finding our way to mutual right 

Hauerwas, A Community of Character, 3. 


relationships with our fellow human beings. Whether in the form of Bible studies, book 
discussion groups, or other curriculum designed for Christian formation, teaching is an 
important way to transmit our common narrative and give people the opportunity to think 
theologically about their lives. The enterprise of pastoral care can serve to provide a 
model for care and concern, for support and help for individual members of a community 
in times of trouble, fear, or uncertainty. Sometimes just talking out a problem is a 
valuable function of pastoral care in community, visiting a hospitalized or shut-in 
member or a loved one of a member, or offering other kinds of emotional, spiritual or 
even physical support, can serve as transmission points of the Christian narrative that 
forms the basis of a community of character. 

Social justice actions taken collectively by members of the community of 
character can serve as a powerful witness to the Christian narrative in action. The stories 
of Jesus and his interactions with human beings in the gospels are critical to the narrative 
of Christianity as a whole. When Jesus encountered people, often they were changed. 
Sometimes we see Jesus himself changed by these interactions, as in the story of the 
Syro-Phoenecian woman 17 in Mark's gospel wherein her response to his arguably 
disrespectful rebuff to her request caused him to re-evaluate his action and grant her 
request. These gospel stories are designed to show us a picture of what doing justice 
looks like in various human interactions and leads us to an understanding of what it 
means to be in right relation with God and our fellow human beings. Or, as Daniel 

17 Mark 7:24-30 


Harrington and James Keenan put it, "The mission of Jesus is to make possible again our 
right relation with God. . .and his coming among us is described ... as the revelation and 
manifestation of the justice of God." 18 Just as Jesus' actions are embedded in our 
Christian narrative as the bedrock that forms our faith, so too our action or inaction on 
justice issues becomes evidence of whether we have, in fact, been formed by the narrative 
of the community of character we call the church. 

Some of this commitment to justice comes in the form of simply resisting the 
dominant cultural norms that allow us to act, or avoid action, in ways that are clearly 
counter to the overall story of the Christian narrative that teaches us to live together in 
mutual right relation. This resistance can be hard because it "goes against the grain" of 
everything we know in this society and the world. We are constantly formed and 
informed by the communities with which we identify. So, the community of character 
that we call the church becomes vital to our ability to know what is virtuous, what is 
right, how to act and react. Beverly Wildung Harrison suggests that such resistance to 
status-quo cultural norms calls for our ability to act in ways that are counter-cultural to 
the world's values. What is required is support from an alternative community. She says, 
"Such resistance is not possible in isolation; it becomes a life option only in and through 

18 Daniel J. Harrington and James F. Keenan, Jesus and Virtue Ethics : Building 
Bridges between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology (Lanham, Md: Sheed & 
Ward, 2002), 130. 


the experience of communities of resistence." 19 Therefore this community of character 
makes possible not only our formation as persons of character but our formation as agents 
of action in the world. The evidence of this formation is noted by working for justice and 
against embedded dynamics of power that perpetuate privilege systems that benefit a few 
while oppressing many, including ourselves. 

Modern and postmodern society, certainly society as it exists in the 21 st century, 
has very different notions of what consitutes community compared to previous centuries. 
Arguably the advent of the World Wide Web, or the Internet as it is now called, has 
changed the nature of what it means to be in community. Whereas social institutions and 
particularly the church functioned as one of the main forms of community in past times, 
social networking sites and tools for interacting online have expanded our ability to be in 
community. Some deride this development as technology functioning to further isolate 
people one from another. However, others find the ability to communicate, the enjoyment 
of media presentations including worship services, and even participation in virtual 
worlds, a welcome development that allows more and more diverse opportunities to form 
and participate in community. Many of us depend heavily on access to the Internet for 
day to day information and interaction by email or text message. Some of us enjoy the 
opportunity to be in closer contact with our friends by using social networking sites such 
as Facebook or Twitter. Even political and social movements for justice now exercise the 

19 Beverly Wildung Harrison, Justice in the Making (Louisville: Westminster 
John Knox, 2004), 186. 


power of community action using technology as was evidenced by the use of Twitter and 
Facebook in the recent uprisings over election corruption in Iran or the "Occupy 
Movement" globally. 

Furthermore, people who live in isolated locations or who have serious health or 
mobility constraints that preclude their ability to go outside their homes to form face-to- 
face community now have the option of interacting and being part of a community 
interacting over the Internet in various ways. From using Facebook and Twitter to 
communicate, to watching video online, to participating in text discussions, to interacting 
in virtual worlds like Second Life, 20 the Internet and technological access to community 
make possible a whole new and wide array of possiblity for forming a community of 

We want to look more closely at the particular manifestation of church in Second 
Life called Sunshine Cathedral of Second Life. This Metropolitan Community Church is 
an outreach ministry of the real-life Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 
Service are held there weekly. The liturgy generally follows the liturgy at the real-life 
church, excluding the distribution of holy communion. Sacred texts are read, often by 
members, and the general themes of the readings each week are supplemented with 
musical selections designed to further enhance the participants' consideration of the 
themes. A short reflection is offered by the worship leader to expand upon the themes in 
the form of contextual teaching and a call to action in real life often revolving around 

20 Readers can learn more by visiting 


some form of social justice, interpersonal interaction, or personal development. Prayers 
are offered together and shared with the gathered community. Group discussions of 
matters from the personal challenges of individuals to world events often follow the 
worship service itself. The real people behind the avatar that represents them in Second 
Life share their everyday challenges from health concerns to challenges in their work life 
and families. A group study of Karen Armstrong's book Twelve Steps of Compassionate 
Life provided an opportunity for members of Metropolitan Community Church of 
Northern Virginia in Fairfax, to join together with members of the online Sunshine 
Cathedral and others for a fifteen week study of the function of compassion in human 
community. This book study, along with the reflection in the worship service each week, 
contains an intentional call to action to work for justice and live ethical lives based in the 
Golden Rule — the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. It seems clear that 
Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life affords anyone who attends and participates similar 
kinds of opportunity for growth and spiritual formation as do face-to-face faith 

Some continue to question whether a person sitting alone in their home or office 
attending church as an avatar in Second Life qualifies as any kind of human interaction at 
all and whether interacting with others in the form of avatars has any possiblity of 
consitutuing community. Rachel Wagner in her 2012 book, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, 
and Virtual Reality says, "The problem is, both claims are true: we are 'together' in 
online space and at the same time by ourselves in front of a screen, connected via pixels 


and information but often alientated in our embodied nature to the extent that we may 
know very little about the people with whom we craft what seem to us to be meaningful 
connections." 21 It seems an obvious point to make at this juncture that this phenomenon 
is not unlike the person who attends a large church for Sunday services, participates in 
the liturgy and prayers, greets fellow members, and leaves without making any other 
commitment or investment in the community. While these people may sit in the pews 
next to others in phyiscal proximity, they lack any kind of emotional investment that 
would constitute membership in a community of character. Furthermore this kind of 
participation in worship without any real intimacy with other worshippers could hardly be 
viewed as the kind of relationship that constitutes a nurturing community that calls us to 
living an ethical life and working for justice. 

One of the most common arguments against recognizing that church can be a real 
community in Second Life contends that the people who animate the avatars can 
misrepresent themselves in a variety of ways thereby thwarting any possibility of 
meaningful relationship. We insist that this dynamic is also possible in real-life face-to- 
face interactions. In groups that are large enough that anonymity is the norm and 
knowledge of the intimate details of people's lives go routinely unknown, the community 
of faith is reduced a collection of individuals that are simply networking as they 
participate in corporate worship. Again Rachel Welch points to real community as an 

Rachel Wagner, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality (Abingdon, 
Oxon.: Routledge, 2011), 128. 


environment that encourages people to deeply know each other through friendship and 
connection that goes beyond participating in worship services or study groups. 22 This 
kind of investment in intimacy requires a kind of vulnerability that goes far beyond 
knowing the facts of where someone lives or what they do for a living. 

It seems clear that both face-to-face and Second Life church have the potential to 
faciliate a community of character, i.e., a faith community that transmits the Christian 
story, provides an ethical compass for living one's life, and serves as a call to action to 
work for justice in the world. Both of these contexts are able to provide a community 
where people feel known, affirmed, supported, and encouraged. Both virtual and face-to- 
face communities can serve as vehicles for the formation of the kind of community that 
has the capacity to bring us out of isolation. Both are capable of nurturing a community 
of character that we can call the "church", that gives us the ability to know what is 
virtuous, what is right, how to act and respond. 

The church in the modern and postmodern world is diverse in belief, practice, 
worship style, and cosmological viewpoints. Some who call themselves Christian contend 
that others who do not believe or worship as they do are heretics not fit to be called 
Christian. The definition of church in its many forms is born out of the theological 
discussions at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and 

22 Ibid, 132. 


Chalcedon, 381-451 CE. These councils produced various doctrines and creeds not least 
of which is the Nicene Creed. 24 While the Nicene Creed continues to be recited in many 
churches to this day, all Christians do not subscribe to its formula for what constitutes the 
church. I refer specifically to the words ", holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." 2 
These four words have become known in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and 
some other Protestant denominations as the four "marks" of the church, the signs by 
which the church may be recognized. By no means do we intend to assert that these 
marks are the only means by which the church can be recognized. Their use in this thesis 
project is intended to be a lens through which we might compare and contrast real-life 
church with church in Second Life. 

The specific meaning in practice of the phrase "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" 
is the subject of endless discussions and debates. 26 Without question this phrase has been 
used as a tool of oppression requiring conformity of its members to whatever 
interpretation was dominant for the particular time in history. Moreover, these words 
have often been used as a justification to squelch debate and require conformity to the 

Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, 2nd ed. (London: 

Spck, 2005), 240. 

24 Book of Common Prayer, (The Church Hymnal Corporation and The Seabury 
Press), 358. 

Peter C. Hodgson, Revisioning the Church: Ecclesial Freedom in the New 
Paradigm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 37. 

26 Ibid. 


particular form of church prescribed by the empire that is in control at a particular time 
and place in history. Executions of all types have resulted from imperial and/or 
ecclesiastical enforcements of the meanings of these words. 

What we will do here is look at these words, these marks of the church, more 
closely to discern how this phrase that has been used as a test for what is "real " church 
might be understood in our time in history. We will determine whether these marks, 
unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, have significance for us in modern times and 
how our interpretations of what real church is can influence our view of virtual church. 
We will hold these marks of the church up against the manifestations of Christian church 
that we see in Second Life as one possible way of determining its ethical basis and 
spiritual efficacy. 

First let us consider unity. Given the reality that the church is diverse in belief and 
practice, at first glance the word unity hardly seems applicable. With so much diversity 
and so many ways of being church manifested in the various denominations and branches 
of the church, it is difficult to find any kind of "oneness." Yet there is one singular focus 
for any group who claims to be Christian. That focus can be described in the words of 
Letty Russell as the "sign of Christ's liberating presence in creation." 27 Metropolitan 
Community Churches themselves have been denied membership in the National Counsel 
of Churches repeatedly because they accept lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender 

Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church 
(Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 127. 


people as full members of the household of God. Yet MCC continues to identify itself as 
a Christian denomination based on it's focus on what Hodgson refers to as "God's 
redemptive action in Christ." 28 It would seem that even when we disagree on what 
constitutes that redemptive action there is a peculiar unity in the belief that the life of 
Jesus, his death, and resurrection, have meaning. We still have unity about the reality of 
the Christie presence in the here and now, embodied on earth in our incarnation as the 
church in the world. Even as we disagree on various points of "oneness" in doctrine and 
practice, it is "God's grace, not God's power to coerce, [that] is central to our experience 
of Jesus' message," 29 as Pamela Dickey Young contends. She further pushes the point 
that the work of salvation resides in the "central task of the church as.... embodying 
God's grace." 30 From this position the fact that the church in all its diverse manifestations 
continues to exist at all is its point of unity. Leonardo Boff points out that unity in any 
form other than the embodiment of the "subversive memory of Jesus of Nazareth" only 

T 1 

serves to prop up the hierarchies that seek to prescribe the conditions of unity. 

Within this framework the church in Second Life then is another manifestation of 
this embodiment like any other one. We understand that this may seem somewhat 

Hodgson, Revisioning the Church, 39. 

Pamela Dickey Young, Re-Creating the Church: Communities of Eros 
(Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press Int'l, 2000), 76. 

30 Ibid. 

Leonardo Boff, Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the 
Institutional Church (New York: Crossroads, 1985), 114-115. 


tongue-in-cheek to those who chuckle at the thought of participation in church in Second 
Life as embodiment at all. Yet we insist that the very fact that each avatar in Second Life 
is controlled, animated, and speaks through the agency of a real-life human being is 
evidence of actual embodiment of the avatar by a flesh and blood human being. "Real 
people. . .are the root of online relationships" 32 like those formed in Second Life. And 
these real people embody the Christie presence that is evidence of God's grace 
continuing in the world. While we may disagree on how we are supposed to carry out 
this embodiment, we are reminded of the words of St. Theresa of Avila: "Christ has no 
body but ours" even if that body is an avatar in Second Life interacting with other bodies 
of the same sort. 

Unity, then, is defined for our purposes as Letty Russell expands upon it. "The 
unity of the church is a gift of the Spirit or presence of Christ. . .The unity of God with 
humankind brought about by God's reconciling action in Jesus Christ is imaged by the 
unity of the church across barriers of diversity." All the more in our differences, our 
view toward God's grace in the reconciling power of the Christ constitutes unity. Because 
Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is a Metropolitan Community Church that welcomes 
everyone and celebrates the diversity of sexuality and gender identity, it is already on the 


Wagner, Godwired, 128. 

Russell, Church in the Round, 132-133. 


margins exhibiting "a relational 'porousness'" 34 that welcomes everyone in all of their 
diversity while remaining part of a greater whole we call the church. In this way Sunshine 
Cathedral in Second Life is no different than a the face-to-face Sunshine Cathedral in 
Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

The second mark of the church is holiness. The mere mention of the word sends 
most of us fidgeting and fretting since we are painfully aware of our decided lack of 
holiness in most of human life. Any discussion of the holiness of the church must first 
contend with the reality that the church itself is made up of people, fallible and sinful at 
times. How then can the church be considered to be holy? How can it even aspire to 
such a goal? First we must deconstruct the meaning of the word "holy" in order to begin 
to form an understanding of holiness. We can begin with what we know about what 
holiness is not. It is not piety or perfection. It does not depend upon our ability to do holy 
things or our capacity to be holy. Holiness with regard to the church is described by 
Thomas Aquinas as being rooted in the guidance of its members by the Holy Spirit. So 
that what makes the church holy is neither the perfection of the institution itself nor the 
holiness of its individual members. Rather holiness is understood as a goal toward which 
the church is ever moving by the dynamic guidance of the Holy Spirit, ever at once 

Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: an Introduction to Queer Theology (New 
York: Seabury Books, 201 1), 108. 


Hodgson, Revisioning the Church, 41. 


calling and pushing it towards its potential to be united with God. This is the place 
"where the divine meets the human.... where God's grace is manifested on earth." 37 

Letty Russell says, "The holiness of the church is ... derived from Christ's 
presence and from the power of the Spirit to transform the church so that it can live in a 
relationship of righteousness and justice with God." 38 This transformation ultimately 
hinges on our willingness to be transformed as individuals and our willingness to be in 
relationship with each other as a community of faith that acts on behalf of justice. Russell 
plainly states, "[A] test of the presence of Christ's holiness in the church is how well it 
announces justice and denounces the forces that hinder the appearance of God's 
righteousness in the mending of creation." 39 I understand this to mean that the evidence 
that Christ is present and that the spirit is at work transforming the church can be 
determined by looking at whether the church works for justice and helps move the world 
toward wholeness. 

Leonardo Boff cautions us to recognize that rules which demand obedience, 
submission, and humility of people to the church open us to manipulation and violence if 

36 Ibid, 42. 

37 Cheng, Radical Love, 108. 


Russell, Church in the Round, 133. 

39 Ibid. 


we dare to question the power structures that support the status quo. 40 Boff encourages us 
to imagine "a new type of holiness" not based on compliance with the rules of the power 
structure for its own maintenance. Rather, our willingness to be militant can be based not 
only against our own short comings, but focused on our fighting exploitation and greed in 
favor of building a community of "balanced social structures." 41 He encourages us to 
strive toward "[n]ew virtues... class solidarity, participation in communal decisions, 
mutual aid" in addition to working against unjust imprisonment and persecution as we 
work in the cause of justice. 42 

It seems clear that the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Letty Russell, and Leonardo Boff 
do not regard holiness as being seated in the righteousness or piety of individuals. Since 
most, if not all of us, fall far short of our own goals this is, indeed, good news. 
Additionally this august group also acknowledges that the holiness of the church does not 
depend on the righteousness of the institution we call the church. In contrast, they seem 
to agree that holiness is a dynamic process of transformation facilitated by the work of 
the Holy Spirit moving its members to actively work for justice. 

Viewing holiness in this light thus demands that each individual community must 
wrestle with the call to do as the prophet Micah says is required of us, "To act justly, and 

Boff, Church, Charism, and Power, 114. 

41 Ibid, 123. 

42 Ibid. 


to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." 43 It seems quite clear that the church 
in Second Life can move toward this goal just as surely as any face-to-face church. 
Holiness as a mark of the church becomes a dynamic community process with 
individuals and the community as a whole constantly working for justice and not simply 
conforming to a prescribed list of tests for piety that no person or institution could 
imagine obtaining. 

Catholicity is the third mark of the church. Because the word "catholic" is most 
often used and understood in its proper noun form with a capital "C", most people read 
the word catholic as Roman Catholic. The word "catholic" in the sense used here means 
"whole" or "universal." Hans Kiing suggests that this wholeness or universality is an 
issue of identity for the church. 44 Jurgen Moltmann says of the word catholic, "[W]hat is 
meant is the church whole and entire, as it is in Christ. . .the church with it's inner 
wholeness is related to the whole of the world." 45 This is a view of the church not as 
something separate and apart from the world but in relationship with the world; one in 
which the church is continually interacting in an intimacy that nurtures wholeness in both 
the church and the world. 

43 Micah 6:8 NIV 

Hodgson, Revisioning the Church, 38. 
45 Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit (New York: Harper & 

Row, 1977), 348. 


Letty Russell further expands on this notion of relatedness to the world saying, 
"[T]o be catholic is to be connected to all of creation in all its groaning parts and to take 
responsibility for the needs of the many different churches and peoples of the world." 46 
This is a very different understanding of universality than has often been enacted by a 
patriarchal church that insists that its own interpretations are the universal truth thus 
imposing them on everyone in a dominant, forceful, and often violent way. Russell goes 
further to insist that the church fulfills its catholicity by "living out a story of faith that 
witnesses to God's love for [the] world." 47 

Leonardo Boff, himself a Roman Catholic theologian, suggests that the catholicity 
of the church hinges on the question, "To what degree does it make visible and carry on 
the relevant experiences of Jesus Christ and the apostles, serving as a herald for the ideals 
of fraternity, participation, and communion present in Jesus' practices and message?" 
Boff calls for an "internal restructuring of the Church in order for it to be more faithful to 
its origins and better carry out is particular mission. . ." that shares power, invites 
participation, and establishes a "more just power." 48 He suggests that we accomplish this 
by working for justice for the poor as a universal concern. This focus on justice for the 
poor insures that people do not become trapped "in their own class interests" replacing 

Russell, Church in the Round, 134. 

47 Ibid. 

Boff, Church, Charism, and Power, 115. 


the concept of universalism across class lines and becoming mired in a self-reflective 
self-interested view. Boff reminds us that, "Rich and poor alike receive communion in 
the church." 49 

Obviously the catholicity described by Kung, Moltmann, and Russell would 
include church in Second Life as a matter of recognizing the universality of the church 
refusing to exclude this virtual manifestation. However, Boff s concern for a recognition 
of class issues shines a light on issues of access and privilege that is inherent in a 
person's ability to participate in virtual church in Second Life or any other form of online 
experience. It goes without saying that the poor often do not have access to the kind of 
computer equipment or Internet connection that is necessary to provide access to church 
in Second Life. On the one hand, the concept of catholicity would seem to demand that 
we include the church in Second Life as part of the universal or catholic nature of the 
church. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that the equipment and technology 
itself sets up exclusion of the poor and inhibits participation by those who do not embrace 
technology either because it intimidates them, because they object to its use of energy to 
power it, because they have never had an opportunity to learn how to use a computer, or 
any other reason. 

Even while these exclusions are considered we must acknowledge that face-to- 
face church has limitations as well. Those who are confined by illness or necessity and 
those who suffer from mobility challenges have an opportunity to participate in church 

49 Ibid, 122. 


that engages their theological tastes in Second Life when they might not otherwise have 
that access. Here we certainly see a balancing act between the inclusive nature of virtual 
church held up against the exclusive nature of online church. 

Finally we look at the fourth mark of the church, apostolicity. Hodgson states 
without apology that the myth of apostolic succession is just that, a myth of legitimated 
authority emanating from "an empirical link between the original apostles and successive 
generations of ecclesiastical leadership." 50 He further points out that this mythical model 
which has served to legitimate hierarchical and exclusively male leadership is 
"regrettable not so much [in that] this happened but that the hierarchical, absolutistic, and 
juridical forms were regarded as divinely sanctioned and eternally legitimated, so that the 
church was unable to change when new political possibilities and expectations opened up 
in the modern and post-modern periods." 51 The great disgrace is that the myth of 
apostolic succession served to freeze the church in a long past pattern of patriarchal 
hierarchy that has outlived its cultural contextuality. That is not to say that patriarchy is 
not present in modern and post-modern society, but certainly there is at least a tendency 
to question its legitimacy and there are ample challenges to its supremacy. What then is 
apostolicity if it has nothing to do with apostolic succession? 

Natalie Watson refers to the Nicene Creed as speaking of "the church apostolic" 
rather than focusing on apostolic succession. She says, "[T]rue apostolicity is always the 

Hodgson, Revisioning the Church, 43. 

51 Ibid. 


apostolicity of the whole church, not that of a particular group of its ministers." She 
envisions a community like that of the earliest Christian communities based on equality 
and justice for all people. Watson reminds us that the church itself must continue to grow 
and change if it is to remain true to its apostolicity. "Being church is. . . a dynamic process 
of transformation and change," reminding us that we are the church in all our diverse 
particularities. 53 In this way certainly the church in Second Life fulfills the mark of 
apostolicity. The people who make up this manifestation of church may not fit the mold 
of what church looks like but it surely represents this dynamic process of change. 

We look again to Letty Russell who says, "The apostolicity of the church is a sign 
of Christ's presence in the life of the church as the true witness to Christ's own story." 
She points out that apostolic succession is the vehicle that some traditions depend upon to 
insure that the salvation story continues by ordaining the next generation of leaders. She 
says that others' "apostolic witness" is realized when we see the quality of life improve 
for those who "live out the biblical story of the Christ. . . in their own time." She insists 
that it is God's liberating action in the world that is unleashed in the living out of this 
salvation story by the church. 54 Once more by this measure, if the lives of the persons 
who animate the avatars that make up the church in Second Life experience the quality of 

>2 Natalie K. Watson, Introducing Feminist Ecclesiology (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf 
& Stock Publishers, 2008), 1 13. 

53 Ibid. 

54 Russell, Church in the Round, 134-135. 


their lives enhanced and are moved to work for justice on behalf of others, then by 
Russell's measure they are learning to live out the salvation story of the Christ and 
constitute the church. 

Leonardo Boff describes a church that holds to apostolic succession as the 
evidence of its apostolicity as "an unbalanced Church structure" in which it is reduced to 
guarding "succession to apostolic power" without insuring "apostolic teaching," denying 
the priesthood of all believers that was affirmed be Pope Paul VI. 55 His vision of the 
church as apostolic is the vision of one sent out. Boff reminds us that all are called to 
bear witness to "the news of God in Jesus Christ." 56 All of us who create the community 
that transmits the living memory of the story that is contained in our sacred texts 
safeguard and preserve that story. Patrick Cheng points to the particular role that 
Sunshine Cathedral plays in apostalicity because it welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual,and 
transgender people in a ministry that is based on the Internet. He says, "[T]he sending 
forth of the gospel - takes on particular importance in terms of the increasing importance 
of cyberspace and technological advances in the queer community. Through such 
advances, queer people are able to form virtual ecclesial communities with other like- 
minded people, regardless of how much we might be isolated with respect to physical 

Boff, Church, Charism, and Power 114. 

56 Ibid, 122. 


geography." 57 Repeatedly the church in Second Life fulfills this apostolic view by 
gathering each week from many countries and time zones to read, study, to discuss the 
liberating stories that we find in the readings of the lectionary each week, and to send out 
its believers to witness for a new humanity in the liberating and justice-making Christ. 

We end with the question with which we began, "What makes church. . . . church?" 
Certainly the church should be a community but not just a community of affinity where 
people come to hang out in a club atmosphere with those who are most like them. A 
different perspective views the church as becoming what Hauerwas describes as a 
community of character, teaching and nurturing the members, encouraging them to live 
ethical lives based on the lessons of scripture, the experience of tradition, and always 
using our own reasoning capacities. The community that gathers in Second Life each 
week for readings, prayer, and reflection certainly fulfills this mandate. Based in the 
reading of Holy Scripture, following an ancient tradition, it encourages those present to 
use their own facilities to consider how they can live out the liberating story of salvation 
in their own lives in the real world. 

Using the lens of the four marks of the church, it seems clear that the church in 
Second Life meets the test of "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." The real people who 
animate the avatars embody the spirit of the living Christ by their very presence. There is 
no reason to gather as church in Second Life other than the desire to call forth the Holy 
Spirit to comfort, challenge, and guide. We have seen that it is neither the holiness of the 

>7 Cheng, Radical Love, 110-111. 


individual members nor the holiness of the institution itself that makes the church holy. 
Rather it is the motivation of its members to work for justice that makes the church holy. 
Certainly we have evidence that those who gather as the church in Second Life actively 
work for justice in both their real lives and in the virtual world of Second Life. They 
share their lives and their stories with us. They teach, preach, do academic research, 
speak out for those who cannot speak, and much more. They tell us that Sunshine 
Cathedral in Second Life encourages them and that they feel the support of other 
members as they go about their work for justice. 

We have acknowledged that technology can be a barrier for some who do not 
have access to the equipment or Internet bandwidth that is required to participate. 
However, we also acknowledge that for some who cannot travel to a real-life church 
because of proximity, infirmity, or mobility challenges access to church in Second Life is 
a nearly miraculous vision of catholicity giving them access to an experience from which 
they would otherwise have been excluded. We would argue that to deny the apostolic 
function of the church in Second Life would be to deny that those who attend are sincere 
in any way. The people behind the avatars who gather there constitute a community that 
continues as the living memory of the story of the good news of God in Jesus Christ. In 
all these ways the church in Second Life is "real" church. Now that we have looked at 
what makes church let us move on to evaluating how the church accomplishes its goal of 
telling the salvation story and working for justice in the world. 



Chapter 3 How the Church Functions to Carry Out God's Mission 

Now that we have looked carefully at what the church is we turn to what the 
church does. Too often we hear church folks refer to the "mission of the church" or worse 
yet refer to the church "doing mission work." This inward looking "church-shaped 
mission" 59 is an utter misunderstanding of what the church is supposed to be about. The 
church does not do mission work. The church's purpose is to carry out God's mission in 
the world. 

Before we can look at various ways the Church can carry out God's mission it is 
important to set out an understanding of God's mission in the world. God is already at 
work in the world. As Christians we learn about this mission in the life, death, and 
resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The gospels are filled with stories of the work of 
God's love in the world. Jesus embodied that love and taught anyone who would listen 
about that inclusive, unconditional love. The work of love in the world is God's mission. 
It is the ministry of the church to carry out that mission. What the church does and how it 

,8 Christopher Duraisingh, "Encountering Difference in a Plural World: A 
Pentecost Paradigm for Mission," in Waging Reconciliation: God's Mission in a Time of 
Globalization and Crisis, ed. Ian T. Douglas (New York: Church Publishing, 2002), 171. 

39 Christopher Duraisingh, "From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped 
Church," The Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 9-10. 


functions is, in the words of Christopher Duraisingh, "only a response, and primarily a 
witness shaped by first discerning the Spirit who is already at work." 60 

It is important to note that the church is not the only agent through which God's 
mission is mediated. Other faith traditions also participate in the mission to spread the 
Good News of God's love. To think otherwise would set up and "insider/outsider" 
attitude that assumes the supersessionism of Christianity. This kind in interpretation leads 
to the kinds of exclusivism that God's love blows apart. 61 

It may be useful to briefly review some of the unfortunate misconceptions that 
exist about the nature of God's mission and what the function of the church is in carrying 
out that mission. One such view is to concentrate on the mission of the Church, rather 
than the mission of God, as a means to activate the return of Christ and the end of the 
world so that we can all live peacefully together in eternity with God. Various scriptural 
passages, notably Mark 13:10, Revelation 6:1-8, Revelation 11:13, and Revelation 14:6- 
7, illustrate the necessity of spreading the gospel and preaching to all nations as 
something that necessarily precedes the eschatological birth of eternity and an end to the 
violence that leads to it. 62 This view looks beyond issues of human suffering and injustice 
in this world and concentrates on the anticipation of the world to come. This 

60 Christopher Duraisingh, "From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped 

Church," 11 


Ibid, 14 

J.C. Hoi 
and Pieter Tijmes, trans. Isaac C. rottenberg (London: SCM Press LTD, 1969), 30-31. 

62 J.C. Hoekendijk, Church Inside Out, New edition ed., ed. L.A. Hoedemaker 


eschatological view has been used for millennia as a justification for the brutality of 
empires borne of an inherent inequity in power distribution. We find this view 
unsatisfactory and unsettling at best. 

Of course we must also contend with what many Christian denominations 
consider the basis upon which they exist, namely the scriptural reference in Matthew 
28:19 to what is often referred to as the Great Commission. This passage has often been 
interpreted as a supersessionist prophecy revealed in the resurrection of the Christ wiping 
out the history and religion of the Jewish people. This view holds that the redemptive 
work of God has been accomplished in the coming of the messiah. One need only hear of 
it and believe it in order to access salvation. 63 

Another perspective, however, might concentrate more on the last few words than 
on the first few words of the Matthew passage hearing Jesus assurance, "I am with you 
always" and his instruction, "tell them everything that I command you" as an echo of the 
prophet in Jeremiah 1:17-19 rather than a supersessionist proclamation. 64 This 
interpretation would put the emphasis on God's presence with us and on spreading the 
Good News of that presence in perspective as our animating principle for working to 
carry out God's mission in our ministry and would take the emphasis off mission as the 

63 Ibid, 31-33 

64 Amy- Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New 
Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation (New York: Oxford 
University Press, USA, 201 1), 54. 


proselytizing of everyone in the world requiring them to necessarily believe in specific 
doctrines of the Christian church. 

Christopher Duraisingh pushes back against the denigration of other faith 
traditions by pointing to Acts 1:8 as a point from which we ought to take our instruction 
for the mission of the church. Duraisingh encourages us to move from a focus of 
"church-shaped mission" to a more inclusive "mission-shaped church" that provides "a 
larger more inclusive framework." 65 

If the ministry of the church then is to spread the Good News of God's love for us 
and call attention to God's presence here with us now on earth, how then can we use the 
"functions" of the church to fulfill God's mission? First we look to the assembly for 
worship. The weekly church service might look like it is the church. Often members of 
congregations tend to act as if this weekly meeting together for communal prayer, the 
reading of sacred texts, and the sharing some teaching on the topics of the day seem to 
function as if this weekly worship service is all there is to carrying out God's mission in 
the world. Our liturgy ought to reflect the culture and customs of the people gathered so 
that it is relevant to their daily lives. The leadership ought to reflect the diversity of the 
congregation or expand the hope of greater diversity. In short liturgy should be the work 
of the people growing up out of their experience and their need for both comfort and 
spiritual growth. 

65 Christopher Duraisingh, "From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped 
Church," The Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 14-15. 


Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life endeavors to utilize its worship in this way. 
While the basic structure, the lectionary passages that are read, the prayers that are said, 
and various other elements mirror the real-life service of Sunshine Cathedral in Fort 
Lauderdale certain accommodations must be made so that the liturgy serves to transmit 
the message of God's love for us and presence with us. The service is shorter, recorded 
music is used in place of congregational singing, and every effort is made to encourage 
members of the community to participate fully in the service. Time is made for prayer 
and quiet reflection so that each person may worship within the context of the liturgy in a 
way that is meaningful for them individually. There is also a great emphasis on 
welcoming everyone and encouraging those present to invite their friends and to come 
back regularly. So the weekly worship service itself is one function that can serve to 
further the message that God is here with us and that God loves us. 

Proclamation of the Good News of God's love for us and acknowledging presence 
with us is another way we can participate in God's mission. It is important to include the 
reading of sacred texts that tell the story of God's work in the world from ancient times to 
the present. Some of these sacred texts are scripture of the Old and New Testaments that 
transmit the story of our tradition and preserve our common history. Other sacred texts 
are more contemporary writings that illustrate, in context, other ways we can help bring 
about God's love and call attention to God's presence in the world. Even our prayers are 
designed as a vehicle to proclaim God's goodness and encourage us in our work to 
further God's mission. Often the reflection given by the worship leader is both a message 


of encouragement for each person on their individual journey and a reminder that those of 
us who live in privilege are duty bound to work for justice on the part of those who live 
in poverty and oppression. Proclamation in its many forms also includes "speaking truth 
to power" by pointing out that God loves each of us equally not favoring one group over 
another or rewarding some while testing others. 6 

Proclamation is also a vehicle for teaching both about God's love for us and 
teaching that our ministry is to spread this Good News. Proclamation in the form of 
teaching can take other forms as well. From offering book studies to chatting with folks 
after service, teaching infuses everything we do at Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life. 
The goal is for no opportunity to be left unexamined. Inclusive language is used 
throughout as a way of teaching that reinscribing gender hierarchies are not part of God's 
mission. Care is taken in the selection of music to minimize the influence of exclusive or 
punitive theological viewpoints. Even the arrangement of the seating area in the worship 
space is used as a way to teach inclusion and community. This kind of teaching allows 
the spirit of God to break in and reach each heart in a very intimate way. 

Finally we strive to transmit a message of service to others in all that we do. If we 
are not willing to be vehicles and conduits of healing then we cannot accomplish the 
mission of sharing God's love. The work of repairing the world, bringing the message of 
the healing power of God's love to everyone, can only be accomplished in our 

Larry Ingle, "Living the Truth, Speaking to Power," the truth.htm . (accessed February 27, 2012). 


willingness to be of service to those around us in whatever context we find ourselves. We 
do this work by being present, by listening, by offering encouragement, by holding each 
other in prayer, and by working for justice both in the virtual world of Second Life and 
when we go out into the real world in our daily lives. Our hope is that we are transmitting 
a clear message that when we work for justice we are fulfilling God's mission to spread 
compassion, reconciliation, and love by being a real-life example of God's presence here 
with us on earth. 

The church in Second Life moves out into the liminality of cyberspace to bring 
the message of hope to the people who are behind the avatars. If the church in Second 
Life furthers God's mission in the world, spreading the Good News of God's love, one 
can hardly argue that it is not real. However, it is not the fact that it calls itself church or 
that it utilizes familiar rituals that makes it legitimate. Rather it is its focus on furthering 
God's mission that validates its ministry and gives it real worth. In this way the church in 
Second Life is like real-life churches. The sole purpose of any form of church is to 
further God's mission by living out God's love and moving the world, even a virtual 
world, toward wholeness. 


Chapter 4 Communion - Mission, Ecclesiology, and Sacrament 

Mission and ecclesiology are inextricably linked in the Christian mindset. The 
earliest days of the formation of the church were rife with turf wars and battles over who 
was in charge and with whom the "Good News" would be shared. Our modern concept of 
church is primarily formed around who is authorized and allowed to take the message out 
to the world, in what form, by what means, and in what contexts. My experience in the 
virtual world of Second Life turned all of that on its head and led me to new 
understandings of what ministry and mission mean in online environments and new 
mission fields like virtual worlds. Similarly, Second Life has reshaped my understanding 
of ministry and mission in the larger context of the relation of creation to the Creator. 

Ministry in Second Life begins, not with defining who we are as church, 
but rather in looking to those "in world" and discerning their needs. Time is 
relative in Second Life since many people gather from various time zones around 
the world. Notices and IM's (instant messages) to group lists are the way to 
remind people that a service is happening and invite them to attend. 
Conversations with folks online at anytime during the week are also part of 
ministry in Second Life. Often people need to share their real-life challenges with 
their fellow congregants so this becomes an important vehicle for touching that 
divine presence of the Spirit. 


The anonymity or perceived anonymity of Second Life interactions can be 
an important help in pastoral conversations. This perceived anonymity functions 
in a similar way that the analyst's couch or the screen of the confessional booth 
provides a boundary that allows for deeper sharing. In a similar way, the avatar 
interaction provides a level of separation that can actually facilitate frank sharing 
and more intimate discussions, particularly in matters concerning spirituality. So 
how we interact is a significant and important way that the mission of sharing the 
Good News of God's love is carried out. Greetings become the entryway to 
sharing and intimacy. Moreover, unlike real life, one person can participate in 
multiple private conversations simultaneously through the instant messaging 
function within Second Life. How we conduct these text chat conversations is 
very important and great care is taken to communicate effectively since the added 
contextual information of body language is not present. 

Worship services become not an end in themselves, but rather the vehicle 
for inviting folks into relationship, prayer, study, and reflection. All of these 
activities are focused solely on one goal, to assist each person in accessing the 
Good News of God's love and care for us and to encourage each person to in turn 
share this Good News with others. 

There are those who doubt that God is present in our interactions in 
Second Life at all. Some contend that since the physical body is not present in the 
interaction there can be no "real" sharing, no real communion of the spirit. Yet I 


submit that interactions in Second Life are at least as authentic as those in "real 
life" not least of all because behind each avatar is a living breathing embodied 
image of God animating the avatar. The avatar becomes the symbol through 
which we interact with the "real person" not unlike the spirit of the Divine 
Presence that inhabits and animates our physical being. If we could understand 
that our "real life" is completely dependent upon and interconnected with the 
Creator as we are aware that our avatar in Second Life is so completely dependent 
and interconnected with our humanness, then surely this would be a revelation 
and a revolution in our spiritual understanding of ethical living and our 
participation in God's mission. We call our avatar into being in a similar way that 
God calls us into being. 67 We inhabit our avatar in the same way that the Spirit 
inhabits our humanness. 68 

Understanding our agency in Second Life as a vehicle for spreading God's 
love to others can be a powerful symbol for how we begin to live our "real life" of 
fulfilling the mission of spreading God's love in the world. Just as the purpose of 
Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is to spread the Good News of God's love to 
the people who inhabit the avatars there, so the church in the "real world" has a 
mission to awaken the divine Spirit that inhabits each human being. 

67 Duraisingh, "From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped Church," 20. 

68 Hodgson, Revisioning the Church, 62. 


From its earliest time, the Christian tradition has often been fixated on who is the 
leader and to whom the church should minister. In my lifetime, the churches I have 
known, from the small Southern Baptist congregations my father led when I was a child 
to the large Episcopal churches of my adulthood, are organized around professional 
clergy who lead a congregation that meets weekly in a building that is usually funded and 
maintained primarily as a place to meet for worship each week. In liturgical traditions 
like the Anglican tradition, the Eucharist has become the central "act" of worship and 
putting on that piece of "theatre" each week has become, in the minds of most of the 
congregants who attend these services, the primary act of ministry. Who is allowed to 
consecrate the bread and wine of the Eucharist and who is invited to the table to partake 
of it is the metaphorical image of hierarchy reinscribed in weekly worship services by a 
priest in robes standing on an elevated altar saying prayers and doing the "holy hand 
waving" of performing the consecration and overseeing the distribution of the Eucharistic 

Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) enjoys lay presidency 69 rather than 
holding that only ordained clergy are able to consecrate the Eucharist. Still there is an 
inherent hierarchy established in the fact that the Eucharist becomes the central element 
of worship and, therefore by extension, the central "act" of being church. 

69 Lay presidency is the practice of having someone other than ordained clergy 
preside over the sacrament of Eucharist. 


The practice of many MCC congregations and clergy is to emphasize universal 
welcome to the Eucharistic table without restriction but the bylaws of MCC still say that 
membership is restricted to those who have been baptized. These written bylaws further 
state that participation in Holy Communion is restricted to those who signify "their desire 
to be received into community with Jesus Christ, to be saved by Jesus Christ's 
sacrifice. . .and to commit their lives anew to the service of Jesus Christ." 70 Furthermore, 
we see that in practice, many MCC congregations grant full membership status to people 
of faith traditions other than Christianity because often these people are as disaffected by 
their communities as are many Christians who find a home in these MCC faith 
communities. However, the exclusivity of requiring a profession of faith, the ritual of 
baptism, and participation in the Eucharist as the central act of what it means to be a faith 
community often alienates those who might otherwise want to affiliate with justice 
seeking people who strive to lead ethical lives working for peace and some sense of 
fulfilled life. 

The word ecclesiology is often understood in terms of this hierarchy of defining 
who is "in" and who is "out" of the church as well as who is licensed to lead a 
congregation, consecrate the Eucharist, baptize, ordain and otherwise sit in authority 
within the organization we call the church. Surprisingly, the origins of the word 
"ecclesia" more aptly refers simply to the assembling of the people according to Peter C. 

70 Bylaws of The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches: as 
revised at General Conference XXIV, Acapulco, Mexico, Effective 29 June 2010, Article 
III, B2. 


Hogson. 71 This assembling in buildings that exist primarily for the purpose of enacting 
rituals like baptism, Eucharist, marriage, and funerals lends itself to the establishment and 
perpetuation of hierarchies that ultimately define who controls what will happen, when it 
will happen, and who will be included and excluded. 

This gathering into what we understand as "church" happens in the midst 
of daily life complicated by the demands and pressures of work, school, family 
life, and leisure activity. In Second Life people enter this virtual world primarily 
as a part of their leisure life. In Second Life people gather together for the 
primary purpose of interacting with each other in some way that enhances their 
lives spiritually both individually and communally. This drive toward interaction 
means that the conversations before the assembly, the shared prayers during the 
assembly, and the conversations after the worship service are the primary reason 
why people gather in Second Life. However, it is important to note that the 
coming together of people in the context of a faith community is often facilitated 
by familiar signs and symbols of the church that people have come to view as 
defining what it means to be church. 

Moving about in this virtual world by means of an avatar helps us unlock 
our more traditional ways of thinking and open up our minds to the possibility of 

Hodgson, Revisioning the Church, 24-27 '. 



new ways of thinking about "ecclesial embodiment" as we reconsider individual 
embodiment. Lewis Mudge reminds us that we would do well "to think of the 
purpose of social interaction as human empowerment" and be mindful of "the 
way power is conceived and applied," asking ourselves if it enhances or 
diminishes people. 73 Certainly it is my goal to ask this question of every facet of 
how we interact in Second Life and make whatever adjustments we can make to 
insure that the interactions people enjoy at Sunshine Cathedral enhance people's 

Since many people assume that the sacraments of a church (baptism, 
Eucharist, marriage, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the funeral service or burial, 
depending on denomination) require an actual embodied human to be present, 
there is a distinct lack of performance and participation in these rituals in Second 
Life. The absence of these rituals that often require leadership by an ecclesial 
authority (priest or ordained minister) serves to break down hierarchies and 
restore the community to a more egalitarian structure. Still, for those who need 
and want to participate in the Eucharist there is a yearning to experience this 
community ritual. For some, it is the central observance that reminds them that 
they are Christian. 

72 Lewis Mudge, Rethinking the Beloved Community: Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, 
Social Theory (New York: Consul Oecumenique, 2000), 75. 

73 Ibid, 67. 


Because Second Life specifically affords us the opportunity to further individual 
spiritual growth and the formation of a meaningful community of faith, we must consider 
whether Eucharist or Holy Communion is a ritual that can have meaning for virtual 
ministry contexts. The explosion of Internet access and our media-driven cultural context 
demands that we begin to ask questions that have, heretofore, remained unnecessary. For 
instance, we did not have to deal with the questions of full participation when television 
and radio were the only means of experiencing a worship service from one's home or 
other remote location primarily because the delivery mediums were "one way" in nature. 
The signal was broadcast out and there was no two-way communication. These delivery 
media were designed for broadcasting a sermon or service. They were not designed, with 
the exception of monetary gifts and the invitation to place one's hand on the television 
for prayer, to spur a dialogue that became a two-way communication. Even when email 
and list servs proliferated and provided the means to dialogue, still there was no visual 
and audio experience to go along with that kind of relational dialogue. Today we are 
quite capable of providing a streaming audio and video experience while simultaneously 
communicating in real time either in type chat style dialogue or even using voice/video 
communications. We live in a world where it is now possible to experience remote 
location relationship at a level never before understood in a faith community context. 
Now we can participate in church from our living rooms as an avatar attending church in 
the virtual world Second Life. We can invite our friends to attend church with us 


regardless of whether or not we live in different countries halfway around the world 
from one another. 

Once we have invited these friends to church then we must wrestle with the 
question: Can people who are not in the same physical or temporal space share in a 
common paschal meal in a meaningful way? Is the receiving of the elements in the world 
of Second Life meaningful for the person whose avatar is participating in the ritual meal? 
In order to consider these questions, we must first establish what Eucharist or Holy 
Communion is and what purpose it serves in the life of a faith community and in the life 
of an individual. I use the terms Eucharist and Holy Communion, understanding them to 
be a symbol of Christian community enacted as a sacrament of receiving elements made 
from bread and grapes and remembering a time when all the disciples of Jesus were in 
one place sharing a last meal together. Hereafter we shall refer to this act as 
"Communion." Furthermore, this paper will not deal with the question of who is qualified 
to preside at the table in the first place. To expedite our understanding of Communion, 
we will not focus on questions of leadership for the sacrament - ordination, apostolic 
succession, and the like; we will assume use of the role of "lay presidency." The heart of 
our work here will center on whether it is reasonable and possible for people who are not 
at the same physical site to participate in communion together and take away from the 
experience an efficacious result for their spiritual lives. We will also explore whether or 
not sharing a virtual Holy Communion might a means of building identity and 
community in a specifically Christian context. 


I want to present my own notions about Communion before we sally forth into all 
the things that it can or might be. I do not view the sacrament of Communion as "the one 
full sufficient sacrifice of Christ." 74 Since I reject the doctrine of original sin depicting 
humanity born into a sinful state in need of redemption, 75 there is no need for a sacrificial 
offering to atone for sins. Jesus dying on the cross does have salvific implications for 
humanity to be sure. However, the depiction of Calvary as the epicenter of sacrifice for 
the redemption of human sin and the only means of our escape from hell makes no sense 
without the assumption that all humanity is born sinful. Without this atonement sacrifice 
view of the crucifixion of Jesus, there is no corollary to the Communion meal depicting 
the sacrifice of Jesus' own body and blood, as if upon an altar, for our redemption. The 
sacrament must then be viewed as something more than this traditional hegemonic 
understanding affords us. This sacrificial view is further complicated by the fact that 
Jesus and the disciples had returned, just before his crucifixion, to Jerusalem to celebrate 
the Passover that still included animal sacrifice on an altar in the temple. If we conclude, 
as did Dom Gregory Dix in The Shape of the Liturgy, that the words of Jesus recorded in 

Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology 

(New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 95 

/5 Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine ■ 
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2005), 207-209 

Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, 2nd ed. (London: 


1 Corinthians 1 1:24 (NRSV) 76 as "do this in remembrance of me" are unhistorical, 77 then 
we must conclude that the sacrament of Communion is not just a recollection of Jesus' 
death on a cross as if that cross was an altar and Jesus death a sacrifice for our sins. 

It is often assumed that since Jesus and the disciples had come to Jerusalem to 
celebrate the Passover Feast in the meal these friends were having together on the night 
before Jesus was crucified was a Passover meal. 78 In his book Passover It's History and 
Origin, Theodor Herzl Gastor points out that over time the ritual took on new and 
different practices and shifted in meaning. Whereas the original festival occurred in each 
family's home, it later shifted to the Temple in Jerusalem. Previously each family had 
slaughtered their own lamb and smeared blood on the doorposts of their home. As the 
ritual became centralized in the Temple, families brought their lambs there to be 
slaughtered. This would have been the time period within which Jesus and the disciples 
were living. Their coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover is indicative of this 
custom of bringing the sacrifice to the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 
CE the slaughter of lambs was set aside but the consumption of unleavened bread with 
bitter herbs returned to a home based ritual. The point of Passover remained the same, 

76 NRSV indicates the New Revised Standard Version of the bible, authorized and 
copyrighted by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches 
of Christ, U.S.A., 1989. 

77 Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (New York: The Seabury Press, 

1982), 55 


Grove Books Limited. (Bramcote, Nottingham: Grove Books Limited, 1987), 27 

Roger T. Beckwith, Daily and Weekly Worship: Jewish to Christian, First 


that is, to share the story of the liberation of the Israelites from the bondage of slavery in 

Egypt, to remember their deliverance by God, and in so doing to remind each family that 

they belong to a larger family. Speaking about the Passover ritual itself and how it 

evolved he says, 

The central feature of the entire ceremonial was, as we have seen, a 
common meal eaten by all members of a family at full moon in the first 
month of the year. According to the Israelite writers, anyone who 
abstained was deemed to have cut himself off from his people. 

Now, such eating together is a standard method, all over the world, of 
establishing ties of kinship or alliance, the idea being that a common 
substance and essence is thereby absorbed. Indeed, our own word 
companion means properly one who shares bread with another; while the 
Gaelic word for "family," viz., cuedich, denotes those who eat together? 9 

We are reminded that the sharing of a common meal is not particular to the ancient 

Israelites but is enacted in varied cultures throughout the world. Sharing meals is 

considered an acknowledgment and depiction of kinship. Therefore as Gaster concludes, 

"the original purpose of the paschal meal was to recement ties of kinship, infuse new life 

into the family, and renew the bonds of mutual protection at the beginning of each 


However, the meal that Jesus and the disciples celebrated does not conform to the 

order and elements of the Passover meal so neatly. This has lead Dom Gregory Dix and 

others to conclude that the meal Jesus shared with his friends was not the Passover but 

19 Theodor Herzl Gaster, Passover: Its History and Traditions (Westport, CT: 
Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1984), 17. 

80 Ibid, 17-18. 


rather a different kind of Jewish religious meal. Dix concludes that the meal they shared 
conforms much more closely to a formal supper called "chaburah (plural chaburoth, 
from chaber = a friend)." 81 It is Dix's contention that Jesus and his disciples would have 
quite naturally understood themselves to be one of these "informal societies of friends 
banded together for the purposes of special devotion and charity". The chaburah took 
place in the form of a weekly meal held on the eve of sabbath or holy days. 82 The meal 
constituted a means of binding together the group by sharing a meal and social 
interaction. The meal began with the breaking and blessing of bread, as did any meal for 
an observant Jew, and on a particularly special occasion the chaburah concluded with the 
blessing of a cup of wine after supper known as the cup of blessing. The person who said 
the blessing then first sipped the wine and then passed to each one present at the meal. 83 

Furthermore, as I previously said, Dix closely analyzes the addition of Paul's 
words in 1 Corinthians 1 1 : 24b (NRSV) ". . .do this in remembrance of me," asserting that 
Jesus had "no particular intention" in mind attached to the portion of the phrase "do this," 
rather he was overlaying a particular meaning on this chaburah implying that he would 
no longer be with them physically when they had their next supper together in this way. 

Dix, The Shape of Liturgy, 50. 


Ibid, 50-51. 

83 Ibid, 52. 


Dix contends that Jesus knew that the disciples would meet again in this way but that he 
would not be there with them after this night. 84 

This action appears to me to be the institution of an act of remembering not only 
why they are gathered for devotion and the building of community among them, but 
adding to this the remembering of Jesus' presence with them. I would further consider 
that he may have been reminding them to remember all he had taught them. This would 
include teachings about economic justice, treating others fairly, questioning religious 
practices that oppress and exclude, and reminding them to remain connected to each other 
whether physically or not, in the spirit of their devotion and work together. 

Was the meal that Jesus celebrated with his friends the Passover meal or a special 
chaburahl It seems clear to me that Jesus' blessing of the bread and cup combined with 
the sharing of each with others had a particular meaning for binding them together. 
Furthermore, in either case the meal was a repetitive act designed in part to renew the 
bonds of kinship and remember those not present, to acknowledge those who were also 
breaking bread in similar groups in other places, and to perform a practice that would go 
on long after Jesus was no longer with them in any case. The idea that Jesus was 
instituting some new practice is simply implausible. The only thing we might infer is that 
he was overlaying some new understanding of the practice of meeting together to bless 
and break bread and to bless and drink wine together, that specifically involved the 
remembering of someone who would no longer be present with them. 

84 Ibid, 55-56. 


It is important to note that if the blessing had been only of bread, the significance 
would have been that of an individual act. The act of breaking bread and giving thanks 
was something that any observant Jew did when they ate a meal. 85 The addition of the 
cup brings to the action an understanding that Jesus is pointing to a corporate act, an act 
that brings individuals together into a community and one that encompasses one of their 
members even if he is no longer present. 

Let us now begin to consider just what it is that constitutes Communion as a 
sacramental, liturgical action on the part of the church. A sacrament is understood to be 
"an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." 86 This definition implies 
equal measures of individual intention and piety on the part of those participating, and a 
corporate expression in the outward manifestation of the ritual action we call sacrament. 
So, it is necessary to wrestle with the question, "What is the sacrament of Holy 
Communion or Eucharist?" We ought to consider the implications for both the individual 
and for the corporate body we call the church. 

Clearly the form that Communion takes involves at a minimum the blessing and 
breaking of bread, the blessing and partaking of a common drink, and the giving thanks 
to God for the blessing of coming together in this act of fellowship. As a function of the 
Christian church we are also remembering Jesus, if not as a sacrifice for our sins, then 

Dix, The Shape of Liturgy, 62. 

A. C. A. Hall, A Companion to the Prayer Book: A Liturgical and Spiritual 
Exposition of the Services for the Holy Communion, Morning and Evening Prayer, and 
the Litany (New York: E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1902), 39. 


surely as a model of humility and service, and a reminder to us that we are called to work 
for justice for those oppressed by systems of power. The eating and drinking together 
reminds us that as the church we are Christ's body in the world 87 called to do the work 
that Jesus started in his ministry among and with the disciples. We are not only 
remembering someone who is not here, but in the act of Communion believing that Jesus 
is still alive and present with us. 

We are also reminded that we exist in this action within a context of eternity 
considering that as we live in human form on earth, we are also members of a celestial 
realm the transcends our earthly existence. 88 There is a sense that when Christians gather 
together to partake of Communion, time and space collapse so that those who have come 
before us as the body of Christ and who are now departed from the earthly realm are 
again with us. 89 "The perspectives of past, present, and future lie at the heart of the 
celebration. . ." 90 When we come together in the action of the sacrament of Communion, 
we are acknowledging that we are here now, that we are joined by all those who have 
died and are no longer with us in bodily form, and that we are joined with all those who 

David L. Edwards, What Anglicans Believe in the Twenty-first Century 
(London: Mowbray/Cassell, 2000), 96-97. 

Hall, A Companion to the Prayer Book, 32. 

Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism, 96. 


H.R. McAdoo and Kenneth W. Stevenson, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the 

Anglican Tradition (Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 1995), 123. 


are to come. In that moment there is no time or space. There is only an eternal bond of 
unity as one body. 

We meet each other at the table as we are, with all our flaws and mistakes, with 
our agreements and disagreements even on what the sacrament itself means. It is perhaps 
in the instances we do not agree that we most clearly understand the all-encompassing 
nature of God. Our difference and diversity, far from detracting from the reality of our 
corporate membership in the body of Christ, enhances our interactions and enhances our 
understanding of God's creation. 91 

There is a sense in this meeting that not only time but also space is suspended. So 
despite the fact that we enact the ritual sacrament of Communion in a particular place it is 
no more localized to that place than it is localized to that time. We recall that Jesus taught 
us that the realm of God is within us, not residing in a particular place on earth. Quoting 
F. D. Maurice in his book Kingdom of Christ, Cosslett Quin gives us this important 
question on the topic of localization: "Is everywhere less a word of space than 
somewhere?" 92 We assume that God's presence is with us wherever and everywhere we 
go. We can, by extension then, know that the presence of Christ and indeed the body of 
Christ itself is with us and in us wherever and everywhere we find ourselves. 

Cosslett Quin, At the Lord's Table: a theological and devotional commentary 
on the Holy Communion Service according to the Anglican Rite of 1662 (London: 
Lutterworth Press, 1954), 9-10. 

92 Ibid, 17. 


We have noted that there is little duality in our appraisal of Communion. It 
consists of not either bread or drink, but both. It happens not only in the present, but also 
in the past and future simultaneously. It is not constrained by a locality tying God's 
presence in the Communion with the risen Christ to a single location, but transcending 
place to be everywhere and somewhere at the same time. We include the communion of 
saints by calling into being those who have died and have left the world in physical form. 
In a similar way we come to the Communion table as individuals aware that we are part 
of body, part of a family of humanity, but also on an interior journey toward wholeness. 

In this act we meet Christ again in a very personal way. As a sacrament 
Communion is more than symbol only. It is a manifestation of a reminder that we are not 
alone; we are companioned by God in the risen Christ on our journey through life and on 
into death. 93 This is a spiritual reality rather than a physical one but no less a reality. 
Christ's presence with us is a mystical presence. Participation in Communion provides a 
gateway to what McAdoo and Stevenson, quoting Richard Hooker, call a ". . . 'true and 
real participation of Christ,' the effect of which is 'a real transmutation of our souls and 
bodies from sin to righteousness, from death and corruptibility to immortality and life.' . . . 
The inward hold which unites the believer with Christ is a present reality." 94 The 
presence we experience is not something that was past or is to come; it exists in our 
present reality for the purpose of changing us and assisting us to transcend the isolation 



Dix, The Shape of Liturgy, 256. 

McAdoo and Stevenson, They Mystery of the Eucharist, 140. 


of individuality and move us into an understanding of ourselves as part of God 
manifested in the body of Christ. This assurance that we are not alone is so powerful that 
it has the capacity to move us beyond even the fear of death. Thus we are comforted in 
the assurance that the risen Christ is with us even as we move from life to death and 
beyond into eternal life. 

The practice of preparing ourselves for Communion can also function as a 
constant reminder that we are in continual need of examining ourselves and our 
relationship to each other and acknowledging our need to be reconciled to one another. 
Monica Attias recounts St. John Chrysostom's four-part formula for reconciliation within 
the context of preparation for receiving Communion. First, we need to recognize and 
acknowledge our own sins and shortcomings. Second, we refuse to descend into 
resentment of others, take control of our anger, and forgive those who have wronged us. 
Third, we are to pray asking for God's grace. Fourth, we ought to participate in what is 
described as "almsgiving . . . [for] it has great value." 5 This interior process puts in 
motion the action of reconciliation first of ourselves to God, then to others, 
acknowledging the necessity of God's grace to accomplish this and finally our desire to 
be reconciled to the world by putting our action into giving of what we have to those in 

95 Monica Attias. "Reconciliation and the Eucharist - Heart and World," in Living 
the Eucharist, ed. Steven Conway (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd, 2001), 
page 13. 


need. Attias contends that we are bonded together in our participation in Communion, 
making it the "first and decisive step towards reconciliation." 96 

She asserts that our participation in a common ritual of Communion is essential 
for our understanding of what it means to be reconciled to each other in peace. "Our 
common life is animated by the mystery of forgiveness and reconciliation manifested in 
the Eucharistic action. This life teaches us that a religious faith that does not develop a 
theology of the other, a theology of reconciliation, is not credible." 97 We experience this 
as a circular paradigm that begins with self-examination, extends to forgiveness of others, 
connects to the divine in asking our own forgiveness, and animates us to put action to our 
desire to be in relationship with God and each other by sharing what we have with others. 
All of this is symbolized and actualized in the ritual sacrament of Communion. We come 
as individuals, we profess our sins and our willingness to forgive, we ask God's grace to 
reconcile us to each other, and we share the bounteous feast together. We come to 
Communion as individuals but we leave as one body of Christ taking the reconciling love 
of God with us into the world. 

As a final word on our constant need for forgiveness and reconciliation with God 
and each other, I turn now briefly to John Calvin. He states, "Though some be more 
imperfect and others less, yet there is no one who does not fail in many respects. Hence 
the Supper would be not only useless to us all, but also pernicious, if we had to bring an 


Ibid, 15. 

97 Ibid, 22. 


integrity of faith or life in which there was nothing with which to find fault." It is 
important to understand that we are not assumed to be without fault when we come to 
Communion. We are not expected to be perfect in order to participate. He further states, 
"Only let us not come without faith or repentance." 99 Our repentance may, at times, be 
apparent. Nevertheless, in almsgiving or other reconciling actions in the world, the 
condition of our faith and intention when we come to Communion is unknowable by 
others. We are left to work this out with God in our own way and in our own time. 
Hence we cannot make the argument that we ought not participate in Communion with 
someone whose character is unknown to us. Since it is not our place to judge another's 
worthiness to participate we are best left to keeping our own house in order rather than 
attempting to condemn someone else. 

At this juncture let us return briefly to the bodily, physical function of 
Communion. Just as we meet the spirit of the risen Christ and the reconciling love of God 
in the sacramental ritual of Communion, our bodies participate in the physical comfort 
and satisfaction of actually ingesting nourishment. Most of us resonate with the term 
"comfort food" acknowledging that food is often experienced as a way to comfort body, 
mind, and spirit. Food, or the lack of it, is an indication of who has the power in any 
given societal structure whether secular or sacred. "Where some eat and others do not, 

J. K. S. Reid, trans., Calvin: Theological Treatises, vol. 22 of Calvin: 
Theological Treatises, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: The Westminster 
Press, 1954), 152. 

"ibid, 153. 


food does more than merely symbolize power." 100 The ritual consumption of food breaks 
down the hierarchies of power that otherwise relegate some to be fed and others to go 
hungry and starve. 

Another element of the sacrament of Communion taking place within the context 
of consuming food points to a communal act of eating together and repeating the ritual 
aspects of the sacrament. "Food alone does not make a meal." 101 In the same way, the 
uniformity of the elements do not connote the true nature of the Communion meal. 
Rather it is a combination of food consumed as a symbol of nourishment of the body, 
done as a ritual act within a community in fellowship with one another symbolizing the 
nourishment of our spirit by being part of a community. 

To summarize, I want to acknowledge that I am not unbiased in my appraisal of 
what constitutes Communion. I want to be clear as I move forward in this thesis what I 
am talking about when we refer to Communion. So to make it quite clear I will simply 
list the aspects that I have identified in the brief literature review and deconstruction of 
the act and function of Communion. For the purposes of this thesis project the list below 
is not exhaustive but certainly inclusive of each item. 

• Elements of food and drink are blessed in the hearing and sight of all who are 
participating in the sacramental ritual, and those elements are ritually if not 
literally shared. 


Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 33. 

101 Ibid, 277. 


• There is an understanding that we recall the Last Supper of the disciples with 
Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. This recollection is a remembering 
of a time when Jesus was with humanity on earth. 

• We meet the risen Christ in the sacrament of Communion acknowledging 
God's presence with us, assuring us that we are never alone. 

• We come as we are to the table without expectation of perfection of body, 
mind, or spirit, and acknowledging our diversity. 

• We come mindful of our need to be reconciled to each other and to God by 
means of coming to terms with our own shortcomings, forgiveness of others, 
acknowledgment of the need for God's grace, and a willingness to amend our 
behaviour and share our blessings with others. 

• We acknowledge in the sacrament of Communion that God is everywhere and 
is therefore with us as we participate in the ritual act. 

• We recognize that we are joined in each Communion service by those who 
have preceded us in death, by those who are not with us in a particular locale, 
and by those who are not yet born but whose lives are yet in the future. 

• We consume the food as an individual act of physical and spiritual 
nourishment that prepares us to move forward into the world as community to 
serve the needs of others and work for justice. 

Let us then consider the virtual world of Second Life. Each person who interacts 
in Second Life does so by means of creating an avatar, a representation of themselves, 


that they then use to move about and interact with others in the virtual world. Avatars 
have the capacity to enact nearly everything that human bodies can do in real life. The 
real human beings behind the avatars interact, form friendships, make homes, have 
businesses, go to bars, sail, play sports, fish, and participate in all sorts of groups, 
including faith communities. 

Each week Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life offers a service. Anyone and 
everyone is welcome to attend. The service consists of prayers, readings, music, and a 
reflection offered by the worship leader followed by conversation between those who 
have attended before the avatars depart the church. 

Using the criteria I have articulated as the basis for what constitutes communion, 
let us consider what Communion might "look like" in Second Life: human beings 
gathering via their avatars in Second Life to participate in a service that also includes the 
celebration of Communion. Here, we must look closely at issues of identity and reality. 
It has been my experience that most people to whom I describe my ministry in Second 
Life often do not recognize the interactions of avatars as authentic human interactions. 
So, as a prelude to our evaluation of the possible efficacy of the sacrament of 
Communion in Second Life, it may be helpful to discuss some of these issues. 

Many books and articles have now been published on the topic of personhood and 
identity in Second Life. One such work published in 2008 by Princeton University Press 
explores anthropological issues of being virtually human. Author Tom Boellstroeff 
claims, "In virtual worlds we can be virtually human, because in them humans. . .open up 


1 09 

a gap from the actual and discover new possibilities for human being." What 
Boellstroeff is arguing is what has been my own experience, namely that identity and 
personhood in Second Life is not unlike living in the so-called "real life" or First Life in 
that certain assumptions are still at work that construct gender, class, race, age, able 
bodiedness, etc. What Second Life affords us is the opportunity to have experiences 
different from those we have in real life. For example, my avatar appears to be a female, 
dressed in male clothing, and using a male sounding name. Each avatar has a "profile" 
attached to it that is accessible by any other avatar that comes into proximity. In Second 
Life we have the option to self identify in any way we choose. I choose to disclose that I 
am a lesbian ordained minister in real life. Keep in mind that unless someone knows who 
I am in real life there is no way to verify that I am who I say I am. However, we live 
with a certain amount of ambiguity about people we meet in real life as well. What is 
fascinating to me is that because my avatar has a decidedly transgender form, I have 
experienced discrimination consistent with actually being a transgender person. 

Additionally, we have had the great pleasure and opportunity to provide pastoral 
counseling to many, many people by sitting and chatting together with them avatar-to- 
avatar. Not surprisingly the topics of conversation that come up are the very same topics 
that come up in real-life pastoral situations. People still need to be reassured that God 
loves them. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people need to talk about coming out 

Tom Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores 
the Virtually Human (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 238. 


to family, friends, business associates, and their face-to-face faith communities. We often 
talk about aging parents, lost loves, relationship challenges, issues of fidelity and honesty, 
in short, the normal and natural list of human challenges that ministers are faced with on 
a daily basis in face-to-face meetings in their church offices. Real people are behind the 
avatars. The interactions they have, for better or worse, are real human interactions. 

A different question is what happens when we move from scripts that allow 
avatars to hug each other or engage in all kinds of activities from skiing to fishing to 
having dinner, to a script that depicts one avatar presiding at a Communion table and then 
distributing the virtual bread and cup to avatars who appear to receive and consume the 
elements? I admit a certain amount of reticence on my own part although I am 
completely at ease in any number of depictions of human interactions in Second Life. 
Notwithstanding the ease of avatar conversation and the fact that I am quite comfortable 
conducting a service of prayer, reading, and reflection interweaving music to enhance the 
experience, I cringe a bit when considering the idea that we might one day include 
Communion as part of the service. I struggle with the question, "Would it be real or 
would it make a mockery of a central sacrament that defines my identity as a Christian?' 

Virtual interaction in a ministry context should not be engaged to the exclusion of 
human face-to-face interaction. Instead, these virtual ministry experiences ought to be 
used to enhance, extend, or encourage people to become part of a face-to-face faith 
community. What about situations where this is not possible? For example, what about 
people who live in remote locations where there are no faith communities that accept 


lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into their midst? What about people who 

are home bound either short or long term due to illness or mobility issues? Are we to 

relegate these people to a life that does not include participation in a service that includes 

Communion? This thought leaves me far colder than considering avatars enacting a 

Communion service in Second Life. 

Feminist liberation theologian Carter Heyward in a sermon preached at Episcopal 

Divinity School on All Saints Day in 1983 puts it very clearly. 

The doctrine of "election," however interpreted, can be postulated only on 
an assumption that God has chosen certain people and not others to 
participate in the "mystical" body of Christ. Why must our faith rest on 
the grounds of exclusivity and special privilege? More to the point, can 
our faith stand on these grounds? I believe not. Our God, the One whom 
Jesus loved, does not pick and choose. . . God continues to choose us all. 
We are the ones who elect, select, sort out, and decide in relation to one 
another where we shall stand and how we shall live as members of this 
mystical body. This is a very real and very present body of all people, 
those who have died, and those who are still alive in the world. 103 

We are only skimming the surface here considering whether its even possible to 

consider offering Holy Communion within the context of Christian ministry in Second 

Life. Yet it seems clear that unless we attach some particular ontological change to the 

elements as they reside on an altar during a Communion service, there appears to be all 

kinds of possibilities for experiencing the connection that is inherent in participation in 

Communion in virtual environments. 

Carter Heyward, Speaking of Christ: A Lesbian Feminist Voice (Cleveland, 
OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), 61. 


Holy Communion remembers the life of the man Jesus who died on a cross 2000 
years ago and acknowledges the presence of God here with us in real time in the presence 
of the risen Christ. We also call into our presence and celebrate the communion of saints 
that includes those who have already died and those who are not yet born. Surely then, 
we can include a person living with us at this time in history who happens to be separated 
by physical distance on the planet. If we can transcend 2000 years and welcome the dead 
into our midst, it does not seem a far stretch to also welcome someone who is with us via 
the Internet. The sacrament of Holy Communion is a moment out of time and space 
designed to break down those barriers. Perhaps it is time to include cyberspace in that 
breaking of barriers. 


Chapter 5 Virtual Lessons for the Real-Life Church 

Most faith communities in Second Life are established as outreach ministries 
designed to welcome new people and give them an experience of the particular faith 
tradition, doctrines, or theology of the group. These groups can be governed by the same 
kinds of exclusionary mechanisms that are in place in the real world. Some groups 
continue to preach and teach a theology of exclusion insisting that LGBT people, for 
instance, are not worthy to be part of the faith community. Some even ban certain avatars 
from attending insisting that they conform to the group's idea of what constitutes and 
acceptable avatar but in many cases, since sacraments are not enacted in Second Life, 
people who show up to services or other events are not required to pass a litmus test of 
their worthiness for sacramental participation. In this way, people are really free to "try 
on" the community. They are welcome to attend, participate, and really grow into the 
community whether or not they have ever been baptized or taken communion. These 
matters are left to one's own conscience and to one's own relationship to God without 
requiring a public profession of faith or act of repentance or membership. 

Sacraments are not the only vehicles from which hierarchy can be 
enforced. Architecture can also be used as a form of establishing who is in and 
who is out as well as setting out who is in charge and who is put into a position of 
submission to authority. Traditionally represented worship spaces, such as the 


Anglican Cathedral in Second Life, 104 can and do set the altar far apart from the 
gathered congregation, the leader stands in front of an assembly in "airplane 
seating" set in rows front to back, thus making a clear distinction between leader 
and people. St. Matthews by the Sea Episcopal 105 also uses a traditional approach 
in its worship space design reflecting its more traditional liturgical style that is 
most often the service of Compline. 

Both of these ministries are lead by lay and ordained people but the 
traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer combined with these 
traditional looking meeting spaces conspire to reinforce an ecclesial hierarchy that 
sets apart leaders from people. This setting apart can also leave the unfortunate 
impression that the business of mission and ministry is confined to those in 
leadership positions and that the function of mission and ministry happens only 
inside the worship services. 

The Koinonia congregation is one of the oldest Christian congregations in 
Second Life. Koinonia, founded by a UCC seminarian that has since finished her 
MDiv and is not ordained, has recently disbanded. For five years, people met 
weekly for prayer and meditation with music and sacred readings forming a basis 
for discussion or a short reflection led by one of several people, including the 

104 See Appendix Figure 1 

105 See Appendix Figure 2 


founder who was very active in the ministry. The worship space for Koinonia 106 
is quite non-traditional. It is circular with the leader sitting within the circle set 
apart only by the proximity to the cross and the color of the chair. 

The worship space of Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is traditional in 
some ways and very modern in others. The footprint of the building is shaped in 
the traditional image of a cross as many cathedral churches are constructed. Yet 
the worship space was designed to be circular to help break down the kind of 
hierarchies that can be inadvertently established in more traditional formats. 
Additionally, there are symbols of most of the world's major religious traditions 
present in the space. This reduces the exclusivity of setting apart Christianity as 
the perceived "best" religion and provides a distinct welcome to those of other 
faith traditions who visit the site or attend services. 

In Second Life, the leaders of gatherings for the purpose of worship may 
or may not be ordained. We do not know of a single Christian group in Second 
Life that enacts the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Most will not discuss 
performing marriage or holy union rites there and only occasionally is a funeral 
held for someone who has actually died in real life. This lack of performance of 
sacramental ritual leaves open the option for worship leaders to be allowed to 
offer their ministry as lay people even in traditions that require the presence of 
clergy to enact sacramental rituals. 

See Appendix Figure 3 


It is important not to leave the impression that Second Life is a completely 
egalitarian society. Those who are leading worship in Second Life often have 
ownership or other privileges that allows them to build structures, contour the 
land, install furnishings, set up worship areas in ways that are meaningful, and 
most importantly to both invite people by means of using notices or instant 
messages (IM's) on group lists to services. These owners also have the power to 
eject and ban avatars from the area if they deem that avatar to be a threat to order 
and peace. In some ways, these privileges far exceed real-life powers both to 
invite and to limit the physical participation of others in worship. It is important to 
remember that when using this power, we are affecting the real-life experience of 
another human being not just ejecting an avatar from a game. 

In general, people move their avatars into community to attend worship, 
discussions, Bible studies, and book studies, for the purpose of private or personal 
meditation, spiritual enrichment, and connecting with others. The perceived 
power in these gatherings is not located in the leader or the owner of the land but 
rather in a more egalitarian model contextually not unlike the kind of authority in 
community that Letty Russell described as Round Table Leadership in her book 
Church in the Round. 107 Christian leadership in the communities we referred to 
above really is a "legitimated power or authority" given for a specific moment in 

Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round, 63-65. 


time by those who are assembled to enjoy and participate in whatever gathering 
has been called together. The aim of such leadership is focused on the 
"empowerment of others" and assisting "members of the congregation in making 
use of their gifts in the service of Christ's love in the world." 108 

One of the most powerful lessons I learned in this regard happened in a 
book study co-led with a clergy colleague from Virginia last year. Rev. Dr. 
Kharma Amos and I decided to conduct a book study of Karen Armstrong's new 
book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life in Second Life instead of in real life. 
She invited members of her congregation to create an avatar and attend the study 
online for a period of 15 weeks. The idea was born out of a desire to give her 
congregation the opportunity to meet and study without leaving their home, to 
expand their horizons by entertaining the virtual world of Second Life, and to 
widen the pool of participants to include folks from Second Life with members of 
her congregation. 

Very early in the process, one of her congregants indicated that she felt 
oppressed by my avatar standing behind the lectern to present a portion of the 
study. She challenged us to shorten our presentations to allow for more 
discussion time. She then complained that the view she had of the assembled 
avatars from her seated position was only that of the backs of their heads. Kharma 
and I, delighted with these suggestions, immediately changed our presentations so 

108 Ibid, 66. 


that our avatars remained seated as we spoke. We opened up our presentations to 
include discussion embedded even within the presentations themselves. In 
addition, we included instructions for everyone that would allow them to utilize 
the unique feature in Second life that allows their avatar to remain seated while 
they move their "camera angle" all around the space even setting it to look at all 
the faces of those assembled as they attended and interacted. This would be the 
same view that a real-life leader would have of the group if standing in front of 
them leading from a position of perceived power. 

These changes decentered power away from the leadership and placed it 
squarely into the hands and hearts of the participants. The level of interaction and 
participation increased dramatically, and the satisfaction level of the participants 
increased. It is important to note that this kind of challenge would not have been 
possible if the group had been meeting in real life. This woman would probably 
never have considered asking her pastor or any other leader to sit down with the 
gathered community rather than standing in a position that denotes authority. 
Because the location of power is decentered, in the absence of the perceived 
authority of clergy that is reinforced by the mediation of the sacraments in the 
context of weekly face-to-face worship, this participant felt very comfortable 
articulating the kinds of changes that would make her feel more comfortable in 
this alien environment. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could solicit this kind of 


feedback from our new members in our real-life congregations and implement 
changes based on power sharing and Round Table Connection? 109 

There are also unique opportunities in the way liturgy is experienced to 
provide a message of inclusion and welcome. At Sunshine Cathedral we play 
recorded music as part of the service and the worship leaders use audio voice 
controls to transmit their real-life voice leading prayers, reading sacred texts, and 
delivering a short reflection for the day. In addition we cut an paste text from the 
service leaflet and the written copy of the weekly reflection into what is known as 
"local chat" so that everyone can read the text of what is being said in context. 
Someone who is hearing impaired for instance or who cannot listen to sound for 
one reason or another can still "see" the words of the service as if it were a sort of 
"closed caption" version of the audio. Often we include song lyrics in this text as 
well. We also provide an electronic service leaflet to each participant as they enter 
the worship space, giving them the order of service and including all of the 
responses that those gathered are invited to enter into "local chat." 110 This 
provides a way to really participate in the service and have the experience of 
seeing the participation of others. This type of engagement enhances the 

109 Ibid, 24-27. 

110 Local chat is a text field available in the interface that allows anyone to enter 
text that can be read by all others in close physical proximity. It is the equivalent of 
speaking loudly enough to be heard in a group of people. 


experience of communal worship and the sharing of prayer requests, all of which 
are designed to give the message of welcome and inclusion to all who attend. 

As we said before we do not intend to imply that Second Life itself is 
more egalitarian or less authoritarian. Indeed, in some ways it is less egalitarian 
than real life. However, the decentering nature produced by functioning within the 
technology, combined with the personal power that is a product of literally 
creating our avatar to appear in any way we choose, gives the real people behind 
the avatar a sense of individual power that allows folks to claim their own 
authority. When this flattened power dynamic is met with a sense of common 
purpose and shared power in a community of faith, this medium allows us to 
experiment with possibilities that we might consider creating in our real-life faith 
communities - experiments that would allow each member to feel empowered by 
the spirit of God's presence that animates their real-life bodies to come together in 

There is also an altered sense of what is public and what is private in 
Second Life. Nearly everything is considered public so this makes for an 
interesting laboratory to experiment with how we might be able to motivate the 
people behind the avatars in Second Life to become more actively engaged in 
their real lives. This sense of all space being public space in Second Life makes 
way for the kind of engagement that Loren Mead refers to in his book 
Transforming Congregations for the Future. I was amazed to note his "Ten 


Characteristics of a Good Congregation" wherein he expands on Parker Palmer's 
thoughts about public life and how they apply to Second Life. 111 Here I will use 
five of Meade's characteristics with my own commentary as follows: 

1 . Strangers meet on common ground. 1 n People meet on the 
common ground of technology from all around the world and 
from many different faith traditions. 

2. Fear of the stranger is faced and dealt with. 113 It is completely 
commonplace to meet someone new each and every time one 
interacts in Second Life. While familiarity certainly exists 
there, is a constant destabilizing effect of meeting new people 
that requires us to face our fear of people whom we do not yet 

3. Life is given color, texture, drama, a festive air. 114 The simple 
fact that the virtual world appears to be a very sophisticated 
animated experience transports most of us to a childhood world 
of cartoon characters and magical possibilities. 

111 Loren B. Mead, Transforming Congregations For the Future (Washington DC: 
Alban Institute, 1994), 48. 

112 Ibid. 

113 Ibid. 

114 Ibid, 50. 


4. People are drawn out of themselves. 115 The perceived 
anonymity of Second Life functions in a similar way to the 
analyst's couch or the confessional booth. This allows people 
to interact in more authentic ways and reveal more of 
themselves than they might otherwise be able to in real life. 

5 . People are empowered and protected against power. ! 16 In 
Second Life people do have power that they do not have in real 
life. For instance they can fly! They can come and go as they 
please without the constraints of time and space that most of us 
are limited by in real life. People can engage in multiple private 
conversations simultaneously, can change their perspective 
without moving their body, and can even create their outward 
appearance in a manner of their own choosing. Simultaneously 
the reality is that one cannot be killed in Second Life. In the 
context of being in a service or study or meeting of any kind at 
Sunshine Cathedral, we who have ownership of the space have 
the power to protect people from being harassed or emotionally 
abused. As we discussed previously, folks who are there to 
attack or abuse others can be easily and quickly ejected and 

115 Ibid. 

116 Ibid. 


banned. We never do this lightly. Nevertheless, we do have the 
power to stop emotional abuse and harassment when we are 
aware that it is occurring. 

We have endeavored here to illustrate how the virtual world of Second 
Life is similar and how it is different from the "real world." Some of the freedom 
to implement and experiment with being church and exercising ministry is based 
in very down to earth realities. For instance building a church and maintaining a 
presence in Second Life is financially feasible for any individual and is a small 
investment for any existing congregation as an outreach ministry. The resistance 
to performing the ritual acts of sacraments serves as means to deconstruct the 
hierarchies that underpin these rituals. Leadership is not restricted to the 
ordained. There are many opportunities for lay leadership. This breaking down of 
ecclesial hierarchies decenters the self-centered view of mission as something 
outside the church or something the church does. 117 However, a more thoughtful 
look at ecclesiology and mission is necessary if we are to take full advantage of 
these destabilizing facts. Otherwise we are in danger of simply reenacting 
hierarchy in various forms as a result of unexamined privilege by those serving in 
leadership positions. 

There is real value in having familiar surroundings that remind people of 
the churches of their youths like the traditional architecture of the Anglican 

Duraisingh, "From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped Church," 10. 


Cathedral in Second Life. There is value in breaking down these images in a way 
that Koinonia has broken them down with pews replaced by relaxing chairs and 
cushions on the floor arranged in a circle. Including the symbols of other religions 
at Sunshine Cathedral reminds us that Christianity is not the supersessionist end 
of God's revelatory action in the world. 

Just as our worship spaces can reinforce the idea that mission is something 
the church does rather than something that it is, so too can our theology of how 
we carry this message. By making the service available in text and audio, we 
increase accessibility for those who may be hearing or sight challenged. Because 
the services occur online those with mobility issues can freely participate. Since 
participants do not use their own voice, we leave it to each person to choose what 
gender representation they want to express. Empowering people in this way is a 
potent message that each person is important, valued, and necessary for sharing 
the Good News. Showing respect in these ways is a powerful model for the 
importance of living our lives ethically and showing respect to others as integral 
to God's mission and our ministry. 

If we someday consider, for instance, enacting the Eucharist in Second 
Life, we have the opportunity to take it "more seriously, yet also more playfully, 
as the enactment of a God-inspired freedom," 118 as Tom Driver says. He goes 

118 Tom F. Driver, Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of 
Ritual (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998), 195. 


further to point out, "Since the message of the gospel is liberation, and since a 
sacrament celebrating that gospel is the performance of a freedom, a Christian 
sacrament tends to break through any particular form." 119 No doubt there will be 
many who question whether people who are not together in one physical space 
can participate in sacraments like Holy Communion. Tom Driver asserts that, 
"Genuine presence is mutual presence." 120 

If one day we embark upon performing Holy Communion or Eucharist in 
Second Life, we need not reinscribe the hierarchical ecclesiology of any particular 
group in real life. Since such a performance will be excessively controversial in 
any case, it will behoove us to take care that it is designed to empower the 
participants in ways that will remind them that it is their work in the world. We 
will do well to take care to remind people to carry the Good News of God's love 
out into the world without reinforcing that they are beholden to clergy who alone 
are allowed to consecrate and distribute the elements. Sharing Eucharist in Second 
Life then might become an act of sharing power and acknowledging a collective 
responsibility for ministry. 

Second Life attracts people from all over the world, from different faith 
traditions and no faith tradition at all. What we do as a faith community in 
Second Life must have an inherent value to those who participate in it. 

119 Ibid, 202. 

120 Ibid, 211. 


Identification with the community must add something to the lives of the very real 
people who inhabit the avatar that is presented as their persona in Second Life. 
That "something" that is necessary is what I have come to understand as the real 
ministry of the church in the world. 

God's mission of love, in this context, is the absolute focus of ministry in 
Second Life. The faith communities that endure and thrive are communities that 
assist the participants in deepening their connection to God and to others by 
means of recalling familiar patterns of worship without reinscribing power 
structures that determine the inclusion or exclusion of persons. These patterns of 
worship are not the "point" of gathering. Rather, the point of gathering is to 
experience a corporate act of affirming what it means to be a person of faith. That 
meaning is rooted in our impulse to tell the Good News of God's love for us. This 
is, as Peter Hodgson describes it, "a mission of service. . . .Such service ought to to 
be liberating rather than authoritarian, collegial rather than hierarchical, inclusive 
rather than exclusive. . . a ministry of Spirit rather than of the letter." 121 

Letty Russell describes this shift as the church understanding that it "does 
not have a mission; rather it participates in God's Mission in the redemption of all 
humanity and the restoration of creation." 122 She goes on to indicate that the 
church does not mediate God's action, rather it should become more modest, 

Hodgson, Revisioning the Church, 43. 

Russell, Church in the Round, 88. 


understanding itself as a symbol or instrument of God's action already in 
progress. 123 Christopher Duraisingh describes this shift in thinking saying that the 
critical issue we have to determine is "what theology is". He says, " We are in 
need of a missiological agenda for theology rather than just a theological agenda 

r- • • nl24 

tor mission. 

The virtual world of Second Life gives us a unique opportunity both to 
rethink ecclesial structures and missiological agendas for theology, and to 
experiment with alternatives that might be difficult, if not impossible, in real life. 
It is important to remember that the point of ministry in Second Life is not a 
fascination with the technology or a need to change liturgy or practice for the sake 
of change. The point is to provide a vehicle for allowing people to access the 
assurance of God's love for all of humanity and participate in rebuilding the 
world as co-creators with God of a realm of peace and justice-love that empowers 
and liberates us all. 

123 Ibid, 89. 

124 Duraisingh, "From Church-Shaped Mission to Mission-Shaped Church," 28. 


Chapter 6 A Theology of Transformation 
Our goal in this project was to study whether ministry in the virtual world 
of Second Life is ethical and effective for spiritual development of individuals in 
the formation of faith community. I believe we have shown here that despite the 
obvious differences, being church in Second Life is remarkably similar to being 
church in real-life face-to-face communities. I think our experience in Second 
Life offers us some unique opportunities to look at the ministry of the church in 
some fresh new ways and gives us some new insights into how carrying out that 
mission must shift and change. 

We have discussed here that our view of the ministry of the church is to 
share the Good News that God is present with us and that God loves us 
unconditionally, extravagantly, and passionately. What does this really mean for 
our lives? The fact is that if we carry this message, fulfilling God's mission as the 
church, transformation occurs. Individual lives are transformed from a focus on 
self-centered fear that drives greed and anger into lives based on loving 
relationships and service. Communities and institutions are freed from the burden 
of existing solely to keep themselves in business and are transformed into entities 
that focus on working for justice both inside and outside the organization. 
Logically this individual and institutional transformation has broader implications 
to give us hope for the transformation of entire societies and cultural systems. 


The virtual world of Second Life requires us to rethink both the how and 
why of what it means to be church. It is easy in real life to see the status quo of 
institutional church as something that has so much inertia that it cannot be easily 
affected. We have our buildings, our prayer books, our sacramental rituals, our 
hymns, our outreach programs, our altar guilds, and vestries. It is easy to become 
convinced that the church is actually the building within which we meet. In our 
most enlightened thoughts, we can often only move to thinking that the church is 
the people who attend it and do the work of what we call "mission." 

When faced with being church in Second Life, we have to start with the 
question, "Why bother?" Our answer to that does not come from a historical view 
that has at its core the answer, "Because we've always had a church." My own 
personal answer came when I realized the deep need that the people behind the 
avatars in Second Life have to know God's love, to experience God's presence, 
and to discover the transformative power that the knowledge of these things can 
have in their lives. 

Virtual ministry, particularly church in Second Life, decenters power, and 
expands our reach to people. It gives us access to an intimacy with people who 
might never otherwise enter a real-life church building or risk being involved with 
an institutional church that has excluded them or shamed them. Second Life gives 
us a second chance to look at why we do ministry and to look beyond "the way 
we've always done it" to find new and innovative ways to spread the Good News 


of God's love. It is the relationships that we form that are the vehicles to transmit 
that love and sense of presence to those who do not yet have a personal 
knowledge of it. This is the transformative power of the gospel, and not the tired 
doctrines of exclusion and sin that have defined Christianity for millennia. 

When we begin our theology with the thought, "How can we include as 
many people as possible and make sure they know they are loved," we let go of 
the power structures that hold hierarchies in tact. When our mission becomes 
centered in transmitting the message that God is here with us and loves us, we 
tend to be less concerned with adherence to particular doctrines. We become 
aware that how we do ministry must change. It is not enough to worry about the 
budget and keep the building in good repair. It is not enough to insist on good 
music and beautiful liturgy so that the theatre of Sunday morning worship is 
aesthetically pleasing. It is not enough to view mission as a list of programs and 
outreach ministries that we participate in as a group. If we are to consider a 
theology of transformation we must first allow our own thought processes to be 
transformed and open up to new possibilities for ourselves, for our congregations, 
for our communities. 

As we grow from childhood to adulthood we are required to let go of play 
and magical thinking in favor of rational thought and a so-called realistic view of 
the world. Yet as people of faith, we profess that the most real thing in our lives is 
the love of God and our knowledge of God's presence with us in the form of the 


Holy Spirit sent to comfort and assure us that we are never alone in our yearning 

for justice. As Christians, we are constantly strengthened by the teachings of 

Jesus and by the triumph of the risen Christ over death and the grave. These are 

the things that we say we believe. These are the things that allow us to step out in 

faith to spread the Good News of God's love to all people. In so doing, we will 

come to respect difference and diversity, offer support and encouragement, and 

allow the transformative power of love to move in the lives of those around us. 

Love transforms us. It opens our eyes and our hearts. It helps us reach our 

true potential. It is the basis of everything that Jesus did and all the lessons that he 

taught. A theology of transformation begins with Jesus' teaching which we call 

the Greatest Commandment found in Matthew 22:36-40. 

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied, 
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and 
with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the 
second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself All the Law and the 
Prophets hang on these two commandments." 

If we are to do as Jesus commanded us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) 

to "tell them everything that I command you," we look to another teaching in 

1 John 4:7-12 that proclaims the joy of authentic love: 

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone 
who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love 
does not know God, because God is love. . .Dear friends, since God so 
loves us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; 
but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete 
in us. 


If we allow ourselves to imagine a world that values inclusion over exclusion, 
love over hate, we will recognize that we are all part of one human family. A 
theology of transformation requires us to begin with the magical thought that 
everything is possible and then bring to bear all our intellect, all our creativity, 
and all our commitment to spread the Good News of God's love as our primary 
mission. This just might change everything. 


Figure 1 

Anglican Cathedral in Second Life Interior 

Note the altar set far apart from the assembly and the leader of the service 
standing in front of the pews arranged in "airplane seating" fashion reinforcing a 
hierarchy of the separateness of leader and people. 


Figure 2 

St. Matthew's by the Sea Episcopal Church Interior 

This space is used primarily for the traditional Anglican service of Compline and 
therefore is set up in a traditional Anglican chapel style. Note the pews are set at 
a slight angle and there is no pulpit so that the leader is either seated with the rest 
of the congregation or stands in the assembly. 


Figure 3 

Koinonia interior 

This space is set in a circular arrangement with non-traditional seating.. The cross 
in the center interior and the presence of the Advent wreath provide anchors of 
traditional elements of Christian tradition. The leader sits in the orange chair in 
the center nearest the cross. 

i \ /ifrT] 

KKi J 1/ FfM\ MI 

Ik W Jm ^^BL ■ 


" BB Jfl ™r 

rV Bk 

^K //A 


Ul .^^Hf 

^^^1 - ^ ^ 

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Figure 4 

Sunshine Cathedral interior and exterior 

This interior is 
arranged in a 
circle with the 
leader standing 
at a lectern in 
front. In the 
center is the 
advent wreath. 

During book studies and other meetings that are not worship services the leader 

sits in the assembly. Note that there is no traditional altar or cross symbols. 

This space is designed to be used 

by multiple faith traditions and is 

intentional about including the 

symbols of many religions in the 

dome that serves as both the 

interior and exterior roof of the 

main meeting area. 


Additionally the exterior is laid out in the traditional cathedral form of a cross 
while the worship space is expanded to a circular area giving the final form of the 
building the image of a Celtic cross. 



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